WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft testified yesterday that he knows of no order given by President Bush that would violate international treaties against torture. His statement follows reports that lawyers working under Ashcroft wrote memos that seemed to justify torture in some cases and that exempted the president from anti-torture rules.
The memos asserted that some forms of torture might be justified by the war on terror and that some prohibitions against torture might violate the Constitution and the president's authority to protect the nation.
In often-heated testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ashcroft declared that the administration's policy on prisoner treatment rejects any kind of abuse or torture. But he flatly rebuffed demands by Democrats that he give the committee copies of the memos. His refusal incited fiery protests from several Democrats.
'Contempt of Congress'
"You've got to have a reason not to answer our questions, as you know from sitting up here," Biden told Ashcroft, a former senator. "You are not allowed, under our Constitution, not to answer our questions. ... You all better come up with a good rationale because otherwise it's contempt of Congress."
Pressed further by other Democratic committee members, Ashcroft said the memos amounted to private correspondence with a president who was seeking legal advice and, therefore, need not be released.
The memos, notably from August 2002 and March 2003 and described in articles in several newspapers this week, suggested that certain actions that might be seen as torture could be justified as a form of national self-defense. The memos, as outlined in news reports, seem to be searching for a way to get around the treaties and laws against torture, so that in some cases such treatment would be permissible.
"For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture, it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years," one 2002 memo reportedly states.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, argued that such efforts to bypass anti-torture prohibitions helped set the stage for the abuse of Iraqi detainees that occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison.
"We know when we have these kinds of orders, what happens," Kennedy said. "We get the stress test, we get the use of dogs, we get the forced nakedness that we've all seen on these and we get the hooding."
Pentagon and administration officials deny that any of the memos could have led to the abuse at Abu Ghraib and say that all prisoners have been afforded the same rights outlined in the Geneva Conventions.
When Ashcroft refused to say whether he agreed with the justifications for torture laid out in the memos, Biden scolded him.
"You're being very generic," Biden said. "You are as generic as they come."
Raising his voice, Biden continued: "There's a reason why we sign these treaties: to protect my son in the military ... so when Americans are captured, they are not tortured."
Ashcroft responded, "Well, as a person whose son is in the military now on active duty and has been in the gulf within the last several months, I'm aware of those considerations. And I care about your son."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, also challenged Ashcroft's reasoning after the attorney general said he believed that keeping such memoranda confidential was essential to "the operation of the executive branch."
"With all due respect, your personal belief is not a law, and you are not citing a law and you are not claiming executive privilege," Durbin said. "And, frankly, that is what contempt of Congress is all about.
"You have to give us a specific legal authority which gives you the right to say no, or the president has to claim privilege," he said. "And you've done neither."
Justice Department officials rejected the idea that Ashcroft could be held in contempt. One senior Justice official said the Republican-led panel would have to vote to decide whether to officially demand documents before any action could be taken.