Attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales vowed on Thursday to abide by international treaties on prisoner treatment if confirmed, but Senate critics asserted that policies he supported led to the torture of terrorism detainees and protested his closeness to President Bush.
"You know there are going to be times when the attorney general of the United States has to enforce the law of the United States. He can't be worried about friends or colleagues at the White House. His duty is to all Americans," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Gonzales responded tersely in his opening statement to the panel. "I will no longer represent only the White House. I will represent the United States of America and its people. I understand the difference between the two roles."
As Gonzales' confirmation hearing got under way, the White House refused to provide senators additional documents his role in the decision to allow aggressive interrogations of terrorism detainees.
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., portrayed Gonzales as a rags-to-riches success story, and said his committee would closely scrutinize his involvement in the crafting of a January 2002 memo he wrote on the treatment of enemy prisoners and his role in crafting presidential orders on detainee policy.
Specter bluntly asked Gonzales: "Do you approve of torture?"
"Absolutely not, senator," he responded.
Asked about the torture scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, Gonzales said he was "sickened and outraged by those photos." But he declined to give a legal opinion on the alleged abuses, suggesting he didn't want to prejudice a possible criminal case if he becomes attorney general.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush had "full trust" in Gonzales and hoped the Senate would "move forward quickly."
"The (prisoner treatment) policy that the president set — that I think Judge Gonzales was talking about in his opening remarks — is very clear and that is that we adhere to our laws and our treaty obligations," McClellan said.
Gonzales, who served as Bush's White House counsel, pledged to abide by treaties that ban torture of prisoners, if he is confirmed by the Senate as the first Hispanic attorney general, while saying the foremost duty of the Justice Department is to protect the nation from terror attacks.
Provoking committee questions was Gonzales' role in Bush's 2002 decision that the president had the authority to bypass international anti-torture accords.
Leahy told Gonzales that treatment of prisoners under that policy was "tantamount to torture."
"I hope things will be different if you are confirmed, Judge Gonzales," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told the former Texas Supreme Court justice.
Leahy asked Gonzales if, as a lawyer, he believed that the president did have the authority to override the government's non-torture policies and international treaties such as the Geneva Convention on prisoner treatment.
"The president has said we're not going to engage in torture. That's a hypothetical question," Gonzales said.
"The president has not authorized or condoned torture," he added.
On the memo that Democrats claim condoned torture, Gonzales said that it "represented the position of the executive branch at the time it was issued"
With Republicans controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, "I worry that our system of checks and balances may become short-circuited by too few checks on the executive branch," Leahy said.
Despite the contentious statements by Leahy and other committee Democrats, Gonzales' nomination was expected to be confirmed by the GOP-led Senate.
Leahy mixed his criticism of administration policy with praise for the son of Mexican immigrants.
"I want to make clear how inspiring your life story is," Leahy said. ""The road you traveled....all the way to the White House is a tribute to you and your family."
Leahy had harsh criticism for administration officials, including Gonzales' predecessor, John Ashcroft.
"Senior officials in the Bush White House, the Ashcroft Justice Department, the Rumsfeld Pentagon set in motion a systematic effort to minimize, distort and even ignore our laws, our policies and international agreements on torture and treatment of prisoners," he said.
He said the hearing provides an "opportunity for some accountability for the meltdown on long-standing U.S. policy on torture."
"Harsh treatment is tantamount to torture," Leahy said.
Gonzales' supporters portrayed him as a pragmatic and cautious lawyer with a rags-to-riches resume.
"Your whole life has been a success story," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
"You have a big job ahead and I know you're up to doing that job," Hatch added.