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Mukasey's Torture Comments Give Panel Pause

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Mukasey's Torture Comments Give Panel Pause

Politics

Mukasey's Torture Comments Give Panel Pause

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

New answers from the man nominated to be attorney general do not appear to be helping his prospects for confirmation. Judge Michael Mukasey has now given senators more than 170 pages of written responses to their questions. He offers his views on presidential authority, coercive interrogations and domestic spying, but he does not give Democrats the assurances they want about waterboarding.

And NPR's Ari Shapiro reports that may be the key point.

ARI SHAPIRO: It wasn't supposed to be this difficult. When President Bush nominated Judge Michael Mukasey to be attorney general, his confirmation seemed almost guaranteed; people even wondered whether the vote might be unanimous.

But today, the landscape looks very different, largely because Mukasey has refused to categorically the interrogation practice known as waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

Senator Dick Durbin seemed to capture the sentiments of many Senate Democrats.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): If we are going to restore the image of the United States of America, then the highest law enforcement official on the land should be clear, firm and unequivocal that waterboarding, torture are unacceptable, un-American, illegal and unconstitutional.

SHAPIRO: Mukasey says in this questionnaire that he finds waterboarding personally repugnant, and that to him it seems over the line. But he refuses to issue a legal opinion on what he called the hypothetical use of certain coercive interrogation techniques. Mukasey said he's still hasn't been briefed on classified interrogation policies so he can't say whether he thinks they're illegal.

The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, acknowledged that Mukasey's answers are not helping him.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): No doubt, the confirmation is at risk at this moment because he has not answered the question categorically, and I think we need to have a very frank discussion with more facts available.

SHAPIRO: Specter suggested having a closed door meeting where senators could ask Mukasey questions in a classified setting. Right now, a committee vote is scheduled for next Tuesday, but Specter's request could push the schedule back.

Even the judge's strongest Democratic supporter, Senator Charles Schumer, refused to say today whether he would vote for Judge Mukasey. He just told reporters, I'm not going to comment on Judge Mukasey here. I'm reading the letter.

In general, Judge Mukasey's responses sound very cautious. He rarely strays outside of the lines that he drew during his two days of confirmation hearings. That may please the people who nominated him, but it has become more and more frustrating to the people who have to decide whether to confirm him.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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