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Tortured answers

At his Senate confirmation hearing this week, Alberto Gonzales assured senators that he understood the difference between the role he has played as White House counsel and the one he would play as U.S. attorney general. "I will no longer represent only the White House," Gonzales said. "I will represent the United States of America and its people."

After seven hours of testimony and pointed questions, it seemed clear that he doesn't understand the difference at all. Gonzales' time before the Senate Judiciary Committee was spent refusing to answer direct questions, being evasive, conveniently losing his memory regarding key events, averting responsibility for controversial legal judgments that he had sought and supported, and generally failing to demonstrate any independence from the White House.

If confirmed as attorney general, which he no doubt will be, Gonzales will bear close watching. He may not be as ideologically driven as John Ashcroft, but his lapdog loyalty to the president offers little reason to believe he will disturb business as usual in this administration. That means the government will continue to hold foreign prisoners without due process, distort the reading of the Geneva Conventions, and justify the use of abusive (but ostensibly not torturous) interrogation methods _ all actions that already have eroded this country's moral authority and put our own soldiers' safety at risk.

Both Republican and Democratic senators seemed frustrated at Gonzales' lack of candor and cooperation. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., bluntly told Gonzales: "We're looking for you, when we ask you questions, to give us an answer, which you haven't done yet."

Citing faulty memory, Gonzales refused to lay out the events that led to the development of a 2002 Justice Department memorandum interpreting a federal statute barring torture. The memorandum was the centerpiece of the hearing. Reports are that it had been solicited by Gonzales after the CIA sought a legal analysis on whether their agents faced criminal liability for utilizing abusive interrogation techniques. The memorandum, which was repudiated by the administration on the eve of Gonzales' hearing, said that the president could approve of torture and override any law or treaty as part of his warmaking powers. It also defined torture very narrowly and said there could be a necessity defense for its use.

While Gonzales declared that he opposed the use of torture, he refused to say whether he thought the president would be bound by a law barring it.

To other important subjects such as how a department under his leadership would handle government openness, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the death penalty, Gonzales gave pat, noncommittal responses.

All in all it was not a reassuring performance by a man who knew he would be confirmed as long as he didn't say anything outrageous. So he chose not to say anything illuminating at all.

The only encouraging sign came when Gonzales promised that, if confirmed, he would be more accessible and accountable than his predecessor. During his four years in office, Ashcroft appeared before the judiciary committee only five times and frequently refused to answer senators' questions or letters. Gonzales should be held to that commitment.

The Republican leadership in Congress, and particularly the judiciary committee chairmen, should recommit themselves to asserting oversight over the policy direction and operations of the Justice Department. Gonzales is someone who will need to be watched, not trusted.

Gonzales, like Ashcroft, seems willing to advance any position preferred by the White House _ an impulse that has helped undermine the rule of law and the separation of powers. This country deserves better in its chief law enforcement officer.