Senate Panel Questions Justice Dept. Nominee

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday questioned Paul McNulty, who is nominated for the no. 2 position at the Justice Department. McNulty previously served as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, where his office handled several of the major terrorism prosecutions of the last five years.

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The man nominated for the second most powerful position at the Justice Department sat before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. Paul McNulty is in line to be Deputy Attorney General. His confirmation hearing covered many of the hot legal issues of the day, terrorism, domestic spying and executive authority. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Many of the audience seats were empty and fewer than half of the Senators on the committee attended the hearing. Democratic Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said don't be fooled.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): If people on the Hill, including members of this committee understood the importance of the position that you seek, this room would be filled; it should be.

SHAPIRO: The Deputy Attorney General has a hand in everything the Justice Department does; terrorism, torture policy, domestic surveillance, drug enforcement and more. The last deputy, James Comey reportedly clashed with White House lawyers over how much power the President should have. Durbin asked Paul McNulty what he would do if he experienced this same pressure on the job.

Senator DURBIN: Whether you are prepared to resign the position if you found it to conflict with what you considered to be ethical or constitutional conduct.

SHAPIRO: McNulty said he will never compromise his integrity for a job.

Mr. PAUL J. MCNULTY (Acting Deputy Attorney General of the United States and Former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia): As a result of more than two decades in this town, I have the confidence, I have the ability to assert myself, but if that situation should arise as you framed it, then I would be prepared certainly to walk away from a job if it came to a question of integrity versus employment.

SHAPIRO: The Justice Department policy that's receiving the most scrutiny right now is domestic spying. On Monday the Judiciary Committee will conduct hearings into that issue. Yesterday ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont asked what McNulty thinks of the Attorney General's rationale for the program. McNulty said he was never briefed on it but he's satisfied with the public explanation.

Mr. MCNULTY: I read the paper carefully and I have to say that I found the legal arguments that were being presented there to be credible and compelling arguments.

Senator PATRICK J. LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Did you find anything you disagreed with?

Mr. MCNULTY: Um, I don't recall right now Senator of anything that I would cite as an area of disagreement.

SHAPIRO: Several committee members asked McNulty about reports that the Justice Department has become more politicized than it ever was before. New York Democrat Charles Schumer gave examples of tobacco cases and civil rights decisions where politically appointed leaders reportedly overruled the unanimous recommendations of career attorneys.

Senator CHARLES E. SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): I don't think you would deny that, at least, out there in the buzz there's a view that this Justice Department in certain areas, particularly civil rights, has behaved more politically.

SHAPIRO: McNulty said he is aware of the buzz. He said if confirmed he'll hold everyone accountable for their actions to make sure politics does not appear to dictate the Department's decisions.

Mr. MCNULTY: The concern you express is something that I will take seriously and I will look at the civil rights division and make sure that it is functional (unintelligible) it has everyone's confidence.

SHAPIRO: McNulty's last job was as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District for Virginia. His office handled several of the major terrorism prosecutions of the last five years. Senators praised the way he handled those cases, but they had concerns about another set of cases in which civilians accused of abusing prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere were referred to McNulty's district. Eastern Virginia received 19 cases in all and none has led to an indictment. Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania asked for a status report. McNulty said:

Mr. MCNULTY: There are a number of obstacles that we face in trying to come to the point of bringing criminal charges against individuals who have in any way been associated with an allegation of some form of abuse.

SHAPIRO: Those obstacles include access to witnesses and victims and questions about jurisdiction. But McNulty said the investigations are still in progress and indictments may be forthcoming. Most of the Committee's Republicans did not attend the hearing. They are all expected to support the President's nominee. Based on the questions McNulty received, many of the Democrats seem likely to vote for him as well. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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