WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Facing intense grilling at his Senate confirmation hearing, attorney general nominee Alberto R. Gonzales vowed that the Bush administration would not tolerate torture of terror suspects and that under his leadership the Justice Department would prosecute those who abuse U.S.-held prisoners.
Gonzales, author of a 2002 White House memo that Democrats said led to the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees by American soldiers, said the photos from Abu Ghraib prison "sickened and outraged me, and left a stain on our nation's reputation."
While vowing to abide by the Geneva Conventions governing humane treatment of prisoners of war, Gonzales did say there are "preliminary discussions" in the administration about revising the 1949 accords.
"I'm not suggesting that the principles, the basic treatment of human beings, should be revisited," he said. "But some people I deal with, the lawyers, indicate maybe this is something we should look at."
The 49-year-old White House counsel is expected to win confirmation as the nation's first Hispanic attorney general. But he faced fierce interrogation from Senate Democrats, who used the hearing to vent long-simmering frustrations over the administration's civil-liberties policies and its views on international treaties banning torture.
One Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined in blistering Gonzales with questions about the treatment of detainees at American prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The nominee, mostly calm, succeeded in sidestepping some of the toughest inquiries, raising the ire of members of the Judiciary Committee in questioning that lasted more than five hours.
"This is not about your intelligence," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, told Gonzales at one point. "This hearing is not about your competence, it's not about your integrity - it's about your judgment and your candor. We're looking for candor, old buddy. I love you, but you're not very candid so far."
Graham said he was angry over the August 2002 memo by the Justice Department that narrowly defined torture, possibly paving the way for the kinds of abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad. Gonzales said that the memo has been repudiated by the administration but that Justice Department officials had done a laudable job dealing with sensitive legal questions.
Cutting off Gonzales, the Republican senator shot back: "They did a lousy job."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, kept pleading for more time from Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, so that he could fire questions at Gonzales.
"So there's a certain kind of sense by many of us here that the administration - and you're the point person on the administration - has not been forthcoming on the whole issues of torture, which not just was committed at Abu Ghraib, but is happening today," Kennedy said.
Democrats also tried to pin down Gonzales on other issues, including his oversight of a White House vetting process for Cabinet nominees that apparently failed. Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, Bush's choice for homeland security secretary, was forced to withdraw his name after a series of questions arose about his integrity.
Gonzales, along with Margaret Spellings, Bush's choice for education secretary, and Carlos Gutierrez, the president's pick to lead the Commerce Department, became the first Cabinet nominees to appear before the Senate.
Specter, who took over yesterday as head of the judiciary panel, said he hopes to fulfill a request from Bush to have Gonzales confirmed before the inauguration Jan. 20. But it may be some time before the committee can vote - let alone the full Senate - because senators will have a week to submit written questions to the nominee.
Anticipating the most contentious issue facing him, Gonzales said in his opening statement that he had been "sickened and outraged" by images of apparent sexual abuse and mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib facility in Iraq. But he said repeatedly that, despite administration memos viewed by critics as condoning torture, both he and Bush oppose any illegal treatment of prisoners.
Bush has "made clear that America stands against and will not tolerate torture under any circumstances," Gonzales said. "I share his resolve that torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration. And I commit to you today that, if confirmed, I will ensure that the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions."
Gonzales, a longtime adviser to Bush, said that, as attorney general, he would no longer represent only the White House.
"I will represent the United States of America and its people," he said.
Even his critics have lauded Gonzales as an American success story - a Mexican-American from Texas who rose from a hardscrabble upbringing to attend Harvard Law School and land at the White House. Members of both parties have predicted that he will be easily confirmed to replace outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Ashcroft had a testy relationship with Democrats over a tumultuous four-year tenure, and Gonzales' hearing sometimes appeared like an exchange of pleasantries compared with Ashcroft's appearances before the panel.
Yet after months of reports, discussion of legal memos and partisan bickering over what led to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run prisons, Democrats seemed hungry for a venue to express their outrage and eager for a punching bag.
"These hearings are an opportunity, at long last, for some accountability for this meltdown of longstanding U.S. policy on torture," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the panel.
The Vermont senator added that he was concerned that Gonzales has in the past "appeared to serve as a facilitator, rather than an independent force in the policy-making process." Leahy said that "the job of attorney general is not about crafting rationalizations for ill-conceived ideas. ... It is about being a forceful, independent voice in our continuing quest for justice and in the defense of constitutional rights of every single American."
The swinging at Gonzales provoked a stern response from home-state Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, who introduced Gonzales. The Texas senator said he feared the hearing was becoming "unnecessarily partisan, even cruel" and that "only in Washington would a good man get raked over the coals only for doing his job."
Sen. Ken Salazar, a newly elected Colorado Democrat, spoke in support of the nominee, saying he "has excelled academically and professionally" and "is better qualified than many recent attorneys general."
Bush's selection of Gonzales has irked liberal groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, which have spent the past few weeks urging Democrats to skewer Gonzales over the administration's policy on torture. In recent days, news reports have suggested that Gonzales was more directly involved than he had previously suggested in the development of policies regarding prisoner treatment.
A handful of Democrats focused yesterday on two memos: one, a draft memo bearing Gonzales' name from January 2002, suggested that Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan might be exempt from the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of war prisoners. The war on terror "renders obsolete" portions of the accord, it said.
The second, written by the Justice Department and dated August 2002, offered an extremely limited definition of what would constitute torture.
The latter memo was withdrawn by the Justice Department a week ago. Democrats on the panel questioned the timing of the withdrawal. They noted that the memo had been in force for more than two years and has been cited in several reports as being a basis for treatment of prisoners held by the United States.
Senators also pushed for Gonzales to respond to news reports that he had pressured the Justice Department to narrowly define torture so that the military could more aggressively interrogate terrorism suspects. The Bush aide acknowledged that he had conferred with Justice Department officials as they worked on their memo but insisted that he "never influenced or pressured" them.