WASHINGTON -- Attorney General-nominee Alberto Gonzales, under scorching criticism from senators, condemned torture as an interrogation tactic Thursday and promised to prosecute abusers of terror suspects. He also disclosed the White House was looking at trying to change the Geneva Conventions that protect prisoner rights.
Pressed at his confirmation hearing by senators from both parties, the White House counsel defended his advice to President Bush that the treaty's protections did not extend to al-Qaida and other suspected terrorists.
"Torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration," Gonzales told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I will ensure the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions."
Gonzales said that as attorney general, he would abide by the 1949 Geneva treaty. But he also said the White House was looking at the possibility of seeking revisions to the conventions.
"Now I'm not suggesting that the principles, the basic treatment of human beings, should be revisited," Gonzales said. "But there has been some very preliminary discussion: Is this something that we ought to look at?"
He said the discussions have not gone far. "It's not been a systematic project or effort to look at this question," Gonzales said. "But some people I deal with, the lawyers, indicate maybe this is something we should look at."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said later that Gonzales was referring to "some preliminary, staff-level discussions about recommendations by the 9-11 commission and the Schlesinger Task Force" that investigated prisoner abuses.
"They recommended that the government should consider developing a new legal standard or new rules for detainees in the war on terrorism," McClellan said.
Sen. Charles Schumer later urged on Bush to consult Congress and he requested a congressional hearing. "My concern is not that these discussions are taking place, but that they are taking place in secret, behind closed doors, with no outside involvement," Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote the president.
Democrats -- and Republicans, at times -- criticized the Bush administration's policies on aggressive interrogation of terrorism suspects.
Gonzales is expected to be confirmed when Congress returns after Bush's inauguration on Jan. 20. He would be the nation's first Hispanic attorney general and replace John Ashcroft.
Democrats said it was Gonzales' January 2002 memo that led to the abuse of suspected terrorists. He had argued in his memo that the fight against terrorism "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
In the White House, Gonzales was at the center of decisions about "the legality of detention and interrogation methods that have been seen as tantamount to torture," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Added Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.: The "legal positions that you have supported have been used by the administration, the military and the CIA to justify torture and Geneva Conventions violations by military and civilian personnel."
Gonzales, wearing an American flag pin in his lapel, sat alone at the witness table. Family members sat behind him in the crowded hearing room. Senators addressed the former Texas Supreme Court justice as "judge," but pressed him repeatedly on administration policies.
Gonzales refused to back away from his legal opinion to Bush that terrorists captured overseas by Americans do not merit the conventions' protections.
"My judgment was ... that it would not apply to al-Qaida -- they weren't a signatory to the convention," he said.
Gonzales denied that any of the memos he wrote or reviewed in the White House had anything to do with the abuse.
"Would you not concede that your decision and the decision of the president to call into question the definition of torture, the need to comply with the Geneva Convention at least opened up a permissive environment of conduct?" asked Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat.
Gonzales said he was sickened and outraged by photos of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. He described the U.S. troops in those photos as "people who were morally bankrupt having fun." Other abuses of foreign detainees probably were caused because "there wasn't adequate training, there wasn't adequate supervision."
"I respectfully disagree that there was some kind of permissive environment," he said.
Gonzales' response to some questions seemed to contradict his description of the conventions in his January 2002 memo.
"I consider the Geneva Convention neither obsolete or quaint," he said at the hearing, promising to ensure U.S. compliance "with all of its legal obligations in fighting the war on terror."
Gonzales declined to give a legal opinion on the prisoner abuse, suggesting he did not want to prejudice a possible criminal case. That led to a 10-minute lecture from Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., on Democrats' long-standing complaints about Bush nominees' refusal to directly answer their questions.
"We're looking for candor, old buddy," Biden said. "I love you, but you're not very candid so far."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the administration "dramatically undermined the war effort" by "getting cute with the law."
"I think you weaken yourself as a nation when you try to play cute and become more like your enemy instead of like who you want to be," he said.
Gonzales objected to Graham's characterizations and noted the beheadings of Americans by terrorists. "We are nothing like our enemies, senator," Gonzales said.
"But we're not like who we want to be and who we have been, and that's the point I'm trying to make," Graham responded. "When you start looking at torture statutes and you look at ways around the spirit of the law, you're losing the moral high ground. ... I do believe that we've lost our way."
After hearing from Gonzales for more than seven hours, senators listened to three critics of the administration's policy on treatment of detainees. One of the witnesses, John D. Hutson, dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H., said Gonzales' memo was "shallow in its legal analysis, shortsighted in its implications, and altogether ill-advised. Frankly, it was just wrong."
During his testimony, Gonzales also:
--supported the use of the Patriot Act, the government's post-Sept. 1 anti-terrorism. "I believe that in part because of the Patriot Act there has not been a domestic attack on United States soil since 9/11," he said.
--sidestepped questions on whether it was legal for Senate Democrats to filibuster Bush's judicial nominations last year.
--promised that his friendship with Bush would not affect him performance as attorney general. "I will no longer represent only the White House," he said. "I will represent the United States of America and its people. I understand the difference between the two roles."
--pledged support for Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision on a woman's right to an abortion. "As far as I'm concerned, it is the law of the land and I will enforce it," he said.
--said he would defend in court the 1996 law in which Congress said states do not have to recognize gay marriages.
--brushed off talk that he eventually be nominated for the Supreme Court if a vacancy occurs.
Schumer suggested that Democrats who supported Gonzales for attorney general would not necessarily do the same if he were picked for the high court.