Attorney general spat

President Bush on Thursday said Senate Democrats were subjecting attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey to a unique and unfair standard that could cause the Justice Department to be left without leadership at a critical juncture.

Mr. Bush, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, defended Mr. Mukasey for refusing to say whether he believed a coercive interrogation technique known as water-boarding was illegal torture. The issue has become the defining question for Senate Democrats in advance of Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee vote on whether to confirm the retired federal judge to succeed Alberto R. Gonzales.

“If the Senate Judiciary Committee were to block Judge Mukasey on these grounds, they would set a new standard for confirmation that could not be met by any responsible nominee for attorney general,” Mr. Bush said. “And that would guarantee that America would have no attorney general during this time of war.”

Mr. Mukasey declined to offer an opinion on the legality of such interrogation methods, saying he has not been briefed on what programs the administration is using. He also said he doesn’t want to make an uninformed judgment that could tip off terror suspects or expose American interrogators to legal action.

On Thursday, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., became the fourth Democrat on the judiciary committee to declare his opposition to Mr. Mukasey.

White House press secretary Dana Perino was asked Thursday if Mr. Bush was saying he would not put forward any other nominee if Mr. Mukasey were rejected. “We don’t believe it would come to that,” she said. “No nominee could meet the test they’ve presented.”

Now, taking a stand against torture is fine. Torture should not be any part of official U.S. government policy or authorized procedure. Whether soldiers in combat, urgently seeking information about enemy plans, always stick to codes of behavior that would pass muster over high tea in some Georgetown drawing room is a separate issue.

But it has to be remembered that — criticized with some justification for pulling nominees for important posts out of a narrow coterie of friends and associates — the president on this occasion, in precisely the spirit of openness and bipartisanship which critics have urged on him, went to senators (including Democratic senators) for advance consultation to make sure Mr. Mukasey would be considered a qualified and acceptable nominee. To this date, there’s little doubt Mr. Mukasey would be confirmed if his nomination were voted upon by the full Senate.

Yet the senators bait the nominee with “gotcha” questions, seeking categorical guarantees which — as Mr. Mukasey points out — could leave a nominee to discover he has criminalized operations he knew nothing about.

Then they strut about looking righteous, happy to imply President Bush is building a torture chamber in the east bedroom.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appears unlikely to allow a floor vote if the Judiciary Committee rejects the nomination. But that appears unlikely, now that Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Charles Schumer say they’ll support the nomination. At any rate, it would be interesting to learn just who Sen. Reid and Sen. Kennedy would like to see appointed.

Neither Neville Chamberlain nor Bertrand Russell remains available. At age 80, however, do they believe one of their prouder alumni, Ramsey Clark — defender of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, the killers of Leon Klinghoffer and U.S. Army deserter Camilo Mejia — may still have a few laps left in him?

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