Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 30, his first appearance before the panel since it came close to rejecting him last fall over his refusal to characterize as torture an interrogation technique known as “waterboarding.”

The oversight hearing was announced yesterday by Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat.

Mr. Mukasey won the committee’s recommendation when two Democrats broke ranks with their colleagues to join the nine Republicans to approve, on an 11-8 vote, the nomination to replace Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

Having spent 18 years as a federal court judge before being picked by President Bush as the nation’s top prosecutor, Mr. Mukasey won confirmation in the Senate on a 53-40 vote, the narrowest margin to confirm an attorney general in more than 50 years.

His scheduled appearance is expected to rekindle the torture debate, brought about when Mr. Mukasey — prodded by both Democrats and Republicans — testified that although waterboarding was “personally repugnant” to him, he could not render a legal decision on its legality or constitutionality without further study.

But Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California broke with their party to support the nomination, saying they were confident that as attorney general Mr. Mukasey would enforce any law enacted by Congress ending waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning.

“The judge made clear to me that were Congress to pass a law banning certain interrogation techniques, we would clearly be acting within our constitutional authority,” Mr. Schumer said. “And he flatly told me the president would have absolutely no legal authority to ignore such a law.”

At the time, Mr. Leahy described Mr. Mukasey’s promise as disingenuous, saying that while “some have sought to find comfort” in his personal assurance he would enforce a new law against waterboarding if Congress were to pass one, “unsaid, of course, is the fact that any such prohibition would have to be enacted over the veto of this president.”

He said that although he wished he could support the nomination, he was not sure Mr. Mukasey would stand for limitations on executive power.

The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said that although some of Mr. Mukasey’s answers during the confirmation hearings were “flimsy,” the Justice Department needed new leadership.

Mr. Leahy also is expected to question Mr. Mukasey about an ongoing Justice Department investigation into the CIA’s destruction of secret interrogation tapes. The tapes were destroyed in 2005.

The Justice Department began a criminal investigation into the tapes earlier this month, and Mr. Mukasey named a special prosecutor to handle the probe.

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