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Gonzales defends opinion, denounces torture in hearing

Alberto Gonzales, nominated by President Bush to be attorney general, denounced the use of torture against terrorism suspects Thursday and pledged to abide by all international law, even as he came under sharp attack from Democrats and some Republicans over the administration's treatment of prisoners.

"This administration does not engage in torture and will not condone torture," Gonzales said during a daylong hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering his nomination to succeed John Ashcroft as attorney general.

Gonzales promised to look into recent reports from the FBI about the possible mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and he disclosed that the administration has had preliminary discussions about seeking to amend prisoner protections in the Geneva Conventions.

He said that he was "deeply committed to ensuring that the U.S. government complies with all of its legal obligations as it fights the war on terror, whether those obligations arise from domestic or international law."

"These obligations include, of course, honoring the Geneva Conventions whenever they apply," he said. Gonzales refused to back away from his legal opinion to Bush that terrorists captured overseas do not merit the conventions' protections.

Gonzales' confirmation does not appear in doubt. But his appearance before the Senate panel turned into an open forum on the Bush administration's legal policies in fighting terrorism, with skeptical questioning even from some Republicans about his role as an architect of many key policies in his four years as White House counsel.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., accused the Bush administration of "playing cute with the law" in its treatment of prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere. That approach, he told Gonzales, has "dramatically undermined" the campaign against terrorism by yielding the moral high ground and has endangered the lives of American troops who may themselves be taken into custody.

"I do believe we have lost our way," Graham told Gonzales, "and my challenge to you as a leader of this nation is to help us find our way without giving up our obligation and right to fight our enemy."

A former judge from Texas, Gonzales acknowledged some missteps by the administration as it has looked for new ways to battle terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and to elicit information from terror suspects in U.S. custody.

The graphic photographs of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison that emerged last year, Gonzales acknowledged, hurt the United States badly in its standing in the world, and he pledged to vigorously pursue investigations against anyone held responsible.

"Do I regret the abuses at Abu Ghraib?" he asked. "Absolutely. I condemn them. Do I believe that they may have hurt us in winning the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world? Yes, and I do regret that."

He blamed the abuses at Abu Ghraib in part on inadequate supervision and training of military personnel regarding the limits of acceptable interrogation tactics. He rejected the idea, advanced by several Judiciary Committee members, that the broad legal policies set out by the administration and by Gonzales himself had opened the door to the abuse of prisoners held in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay.

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."

OTHER NOMINEES: Three of President Bush's Cabinet choices breezed through confirmation hearings, winning unanimous committee approval that sent the nomination to the full Senate. The votes virtually ensured that Margaret Spellings would succeed Rod Paige as secretary of education, Mike Johanns would become Ann Veneman's successor as secretary of agriculture, and Carlos Gutierrez would take over the Commerce Department from Don Evans.

"Torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration. I will ensure the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions."

_ ALBERTO GONZALES, attorney general nominee