How the Democrats Fumbled the Mukasey Nomination

by Laura Snedeker

The attorney general nominee could have tapped the Senate Judiciary Committee’s phones and shipped the chairman to Guantanamo Bay this week and the Democrats still would have ignored his shaky commitment to democracy.

Michael B. Mukasey, a former federal judge, did acknowledge that torture is “unlawful under the laws of this country," and pleased the committee by declaring he would quit rather than violate the Constitution. After listening to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales unabashedly claim this summer that he could not recall several significant events, Mukasey’s relatively straightforward answers gratified the committee so much it practically promised his confirmation.

Despite the nominee’s refusal to answer questions about surveillance and detention, saying he was “not familiar” with the government’s spy program, and that to make a statement about its legality or illegality would be “enormously irresponsible," the majority of Democrats on the committee waited at least a full day to become disturbed.

When asked whether waterboarding, an interrogation tactic used at Guantanamo Bay, is illegal, Mukasey maintained that he did not know “what’s involved in the technique," and that he could not say whether it constitutes torture.

Ignore for a moment that the man who will probably be the next attorney general of the United States has apparently been living under a rock or purposely ignoring every newspaper article describing the technique. How can anyone doubt that tying a prisoner to a board, gagging his mouth, and pouring water over his face to simulate drowning is torture?

Not that the Democrats intend to block his nomination. “He’s at least answered the questions, which is better than his predecessor,” said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who had previously expressed dismay at Mukasey’s acceptance of expanded executive powers.

Do we ask only that our government officials answer questions, without discriminating between good and bad answers? Have we lowered our standards so much that matters of torture and privacy are peripheral?

With the Democratic and Republican candidates battling to establish their national security credentials, the Senate Democrats are prohibited from doing anything partisan or obstructionist. Leaving America without a chief law enforcement officer in this era of heightened security in the Post-9/11 World is unacceptable.

The Judiciary Committee hearings were merely a formality, designed only to confer legitimacy on Mukasey, who could have said anything short of promising to personally torture enemy combatants. The president need not worry about remaining relevant, although reporters questioned him on that point in his news conference this week; Bush is stronger now than he was when the Democrats used their status as the minority party to attack him.

Even if Mukasey is better than his predecessor, that’s an awfully low standard to set. Replacing one corrupt cop with a slightly less corrupt cop is no way to run the Justice Department, and acceptance of corruption is no way to run a democracy.

(Photo of Michael B. Mukasey, the nominee for attorney general, and President George W. Bush by White House photographer Chris Greenberg; as the photo is from the White House, it is in the public domain.)

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media concepts said...

Very well said. I think I watched the entire hearing, and I do not think I ever heard the Senators ask Mukasey, "what is torture?" They asked whether waterboarding is torture, and then we had the circular logic and question-begging of Mukasey's "if it is unconstitutional" answer. I could not believe that the Senators let Mukasey off the hook on this. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have a reputation for being totally ineffective when questioning nominees, and in this case they lived up to their reputation.

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