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Nominee Michael Mukasey on Wednesday reassured senators that he would revisit controversial legal decisions at the Justice Department if he’s confirmed as the nation’s 81st attorney general. From the outset, Mukasey signaled that he will try to strike a balance between fundamental civil rights and administration policies. “Protecting civil liberties and people’s confidence that those liberties are protected is a part of protecting national security,” he said in his opening statement. “Just as is the gathering of intelligence to defend us from those who believe it is their duty to make war on us.” He strongly denounced prior Justice Department memos authorizing the use of physical abuse on terrorism suspects, calling one of them “worse than a sin” and “a mistake.” And he pledged that there would be no room for politics at the Justice Department under his watch. “Partisan politics plays no part in either the bringing of charges or the timing of charges,” he said to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, in response to his first question, about whether he would revise a Justice Department manual addressing prosecutions during political campaigns. Similarly, he said the hiring of personnel would be done on the merits and not on whether there is an “R” or a “D” next to a candidate’s name. President George W. Bush nominated Mukasey after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — discredited for his congressional testimony about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys and the government’s warrantless surveillance program — resigned at the end of August. Mukasey, 66, is a partner at New York’s Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler. In 2006, he retired as chief judge of the prominent U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where he spent 18 years as a jurist. Senators wanted to hear his views on the so-called torture memos, presidential authority, the warrantless surveillance program, the politicization of the Department of Justice, civil rights enforcement, and the status of the Guant�namo detainees. Mukasey breezed through most of the senators’ queries, reflecting the wide bipartisan support he enjoys, and he faced little tough questioning. His direct answers stood in sharp contrast to the vague responses of Gonzales’ in his recent appearances before the Judiciary Committee. “Do you think we need to close Guant�namo?” asked Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.). Mukasey replied that there were “substantial problems” with the prison that holds foreign terrorism suspects. “Although people are treated humanely .�.�. it’s given us a black eye,” he said, adding that he was open to the idea of shutting it down. On the issue of Justice Department torture memos, Mukasey implied that the government has been wrong to condone practices that border on torture and likened them to methods used by the Nazis in World War II. “We are parties to a treaty that outlaws torture,” Mukasey said in response to a question by Leahy. “We don’t torture, not simply because it’s against the law — it’s not what this country is about. It is not what this country stands for.” Asked by committee ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) whether he would stand up to the president, much as Attorney General Elliot Richardson did under President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, Mukasey said he would resign if his advice was not heeded. “If the president proposed to undertake a course of conduct that was in violation of the Constitution .�.�. I could try to talk him out of it or leave,” Mukasey said. On the warrantless surveillance program, Mukasey managed to avoid answering a question on whether Bush can use his commander-in-chief authority to “immunize” illegal eavesdropping, saying he had “not been read into” what the project entailed because it remained classified and he has not yet been briefed on it. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) tried to elicit more from Mukasey by asking him about how much authority Congress wields during a time of war and whether a president can act unilaterally. Mukasey did not answer her directly because, he said, he has not fully studied the issues. “The learning curve that I’ve had until now has been very steep,” he said. “I think it’s not in my interest and the general interest to be in position to come up with highly detailed expressions of view on very complex issues.” Mukasey also said restoring credibility and independence to the beleaguered department would be a top priority, and the appointment of qualified candidates to senior positions and divisions should help stabilize the department. “Matters can’t move forward if offices are vacant,” he said. “Not only does justice not get done, but morale deteriorates. I will attract people who understand the importance of what needs to be done.” Upon his arrival in Room 216 of the Senate’s Hart Office Building Wednesday morning, Mukasey got rock star treatment, as photographers and well-wishers swarmed him. “A little peace and justice around here for a change. A little peace and justice,” a heckler yelled from the audience as Mukasey was ushered in, accompanied by Sens. Leahy, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Specter, a few minutes before 10 a.m. Among the guests and dignitaries sitting behind Mukasey were two Department of Justice officials: Acting Assistant Attorney General Brett Gerry of the Office of Legal Policy and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski of the Office of Legislative Affairs. Also in the front row, sitting next to Mukasey’s family, was former FBI Director Louis Freeh. Mukasey’s testimony is expected to conclude Thursday, when five other witnesses will testify about his nomination.
Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be contacted at [email protected].

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