In March 2002, U.S. elation at the capture of al-Qaida operations chief Abu Zubaida was turning to frustration as he refused to bend to CIA interrogation. But the agency's officers, determined to wring more from Abu Zubaida through threatening interrogations, worried about being charged with violating domestic and international proscriptions on torture.
They asked for a legal review _ the first ever by the government _ of how much pain and suffering a U.S. intelligence officer could inflict on a prisoner without violating a 1994 law that imposes severe penalties, including life imprisonment and execution, on convicted torturers. The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel took up the task, and on at least two occasions during their drafting, they briefed top administration officials on their results.
White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales chaired the meetings on this issue, which included detailed descriptions of interrogation techniques such as "waterboarding," a tactic intended to make detainees feel as if they are drowning. He raised no objections and, without consulting military and State Department experts in the laws of torture and war, approved an August 2002 memo that gave CIA interrogators the legal blessings they sought.
Gonzales, working closely with a small group of conservative legal officials at the White House, the Justice Department and the Defense Department _ and overseeing deliberations that generally excluded potential dissenters _ helped chart other legal paths in the handling and imprisonment of suspected terrorists.
Gonzales' involvement in the crafting of the torture memo, and his work on two presidential orders on detainee policy that provoked controversy or judicial censure during Bush's first term, is expected to take center stage at Senate Judiciary Committee hearings Thursday on Gonzales' nomination to become attorney general.
Supporters of Gonzales depict him as a more pragmatic successor to John Ashcroft, and a cautious lawyer who carefully weighs competing points of view while pressing for aggressive anti-terrorism efforts. His critics have expressed alarm at what they regard as his record of excluding dissenting points of view in the development of legal policies that fail to hold up under broader scrutiny and give short shrift to human rights.
His nomination has, in short, become another battleground for the debate over whether the administration has acted prudently to forestall another terrorist attack or overreached by legally sanctioning rights abuses.
A dozen high-ranking retired military officers took the unusual step this week of signing a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing "deep concern" over the nomination, marking a rare military foray into the debate over a civilian post.
The group includes retired Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The officers are one of several groups to urge the Senate to sharply question Gonzales during the hearing Thursday.