Alberto Gonzales, President Bush's nominee as Attorney General, was given a grilling yesterday over the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. But he insisted that torture never had been, nor ever would be, sanctioned by the US government.
Led by Patrick Leahy, the top ranking minority member, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee subjected Mr Gonzales to intensive questioning over his role, as White House counsel and Mr Bush's top legal adviser, in setting controversial policies in the President's first term.
These guidelines notably established a very narrow definition of what constituted torture, and in effect sidelined the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war for al-Qa'ida detainees in Afghanistan and the "war on terror". But the 49-year-old Mr Gonzales - the son of poor Mexican immigrants and the first Hispanic to be named the country's leading law official - gave no ground, calmly fending off the most pointed questions.
He denied ever using the phrase "forward-leaning" (a euphemism at the Pentagon for the most coercive techniques) over torture policy. The policy for prisoner treatment, he said, was set by the Justice Department. "Our policy is that we do not indulge in torture." Asked whether Mr Bush had the right as commander in chief to override the Geneva Conventions, Mr Gonzales replied that "the President has said we are not going to engage in torture under any circumstances, so the question is hypothetical".
Despite yesterday's aggressive questioning - above all on the infamous "torture memo" of August 2002 and on his earlier assertion that terrorism had rendered some of the Geneva provisions "obsolete" and "quaint" - there was little doubt that he would be confirmed.
Some civil rights groups fear Mr Gonzales will ride as roughshod over civil liberties as did John Ashcroft, his predecessor at the Justice Department, held to be the prime architect of the Patriot Act passed in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks.
There are also complaints that in picking a close aide and friend who has worked as his lawyer since his days as Governor of Texas, Mr Bush is choosing a man who will merely say what he wants to hear.
The plain fact is, however, that the Republicans have a majority both on the Committee itself and in the Senate as a whole. Democrats complained yesterday that the White House had refused to make key documents available for the confirmation hearing - but even Mr Gonzales' most liberal critics acknowledge that in ideological terms he is an improvement on Mr Ashcroft.
As the hearing began on Capitol Hill, new allegations of prisoner abuse emerged, as the Pentagon announced another investigation into possible mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
These centre on concerns expressed by FBI officials over the "coercive tactics" employed by interrogators - but other reports now suggest that such mistreatment continued even after the military started its probe of Abu Ghraib prison in late 2003. "Abusive policies go on to this day," Edward Kennedy, the second-ranking Democrat on the committee, told Mr Gonzales.
And even Republicans on the committee, though strongly supportive of the nominee, expressed unease at some of the policies that flourished under Mr Ashcroft. At one point Arlen Specter, the panel's chairman and noted for his comparatively moderate views, spoke of the need for a review of parts of the Patriot Act which might infringe on civil liberties.
South Carolina's Lindsey Graham went further still, criticising the administration for the damage done to America's image by the prisoner abuse scandal and the dispute over the rights of detainees. "The abuse has hurt us, it has cost us the moral ground and got us onto a slippery slope. We need to win back our friends," he added, complaining of the "legal chaos" at Guantanamo Bay after the Supreme Court ruling that foreign prisoners could not be indefinitely held without trial of any kind.Reuse content