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Senate Panel Questions Deputy AG Nominee

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Senate Panel Questions Deputy AG Nominee

Politics

Senate Panel Questions Deputy AG Nominee

Senate Panel Questions Deputy AG Nominee

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The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a confirmation hearing Wednesday for Mark Filip, who is nominated for the No. 2 job at the Justice Department. The deputy attorney general is a key figure because he is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department. The Justice Department is gearing up for its final year of the Bush administration and is burdened with having to replace many officials who left over the past year, either because the administration is nearing its end, or because of the scandal that followed the firing of a group of federal prosecutors.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The CIA tapes were also the focus of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today. Judge Mark Filip is nominated to be the Justice Department's second in command. At his confirmation hearing, senators asked about torture, violent crime and, of course, those troublesome interrogation videos.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: From the first question, it was clear that this hearing would be as much about the Justice Department's past as its future.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee) Assuming you are the deputy attorney general in 2005…

SHAPIRO: Assuming, committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said, the CIA said it had videotapes showing harsh interrogations.

Sen. LEAHY: And they said, we're going to destroy those videotapes. What kind of advice would you have given them?

SHAPIRO: Mark Filip said, first, he would have told the CIA what the law requires. After doing that, he said he might give the CIA some broader advice, which is even if there was no specific court order demanding that the CIA hold on to the tapes…

Judge MARK FILIP (Northern District of Illinois; Deputy Attorney General Nominee): It might be the better practice to keep those in any event, given the nature of the interest at stake in terms of the subject matter that was on the tapes.

Sen. LEAHY: Subject matter is before the Congress and the courts.

Judge FILIP: Yes, sir.

SHAPIRO: That subject matter being U.S. interrogation policies.

Now, Congress and the courts are both investigating the tapes' destruction. The Justice Department is conducting its own investigation. And the attorney general has said he won't cooperate with Congress' inquiry. That angered the committee's top Republican Arlen Specter.

Today, Specter rattled off about a dozen instances where Congress and the Justice Department have conducted simultaneous investigations in the past. Specter said Congress is investigating a much broader range of issues than just criminal wrongdoing, and he asked Filip…

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): If you have to choose, doesn't congressional primacy prevail?

SHAPIRO: Filip said he would work very hard to find common ground so he wouldn't have to choose. Then later in the hearing, Filip said this…

Judge FILIP: At this early stage, it may make some sense to give some breathing room to the department so that they can try to see what the landscape looks like.

SHAPIRO: The underlying issue here is whether CIA interrogators torture people and, more specifically, how the country defines torture. Like the attorney general at his confirmation hearing, the deputy attorney general nominee would not say whether he believes the practice of controlled drowning, called waterboarding, is torture.

Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin said that's hard to swallow.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Do you understand the problem that creates from this side of the table?

Judge FILIP: I understand the seriousness of the issue. I understand your frustration.

SHAPIRO: Filip said he finds waterboarding personally repugnant, but he would not issue a legal opinion on it.

Durbin said, that answer is unsatisfactory.

Sen. DURBIN: The president has said repeatedly, torture is not our policy. We do not engage in torture. And yet, when we go to the most fundamental and basic definition of torture - waterboarding - we can't elicit an answer from the attorney general or his deputy attorney general, and that is my dilemma.

SHAPIRO: Still, there does not seemed to be any real doubt that Filip will be confirmed. He'll be acting attorney general until Congress has the chance to vote on him early next year. Filip promised that if he's confirmed, he won't allow partisan considerations to influence the department's law enforcement decisions. That's a promise Attorney General Michael Mukasey made at his confirmation hearing, too.

And today, Mukasey took a step in that direction. He put out a memo dramatically limiting the number of people at the White House and Justice who can discuss pending investigations with each other. Mukasey said that will help ensure public confidence that the laws of the United States are being administered impartially.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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