Gonzales may be questioned on Iraq, death penalty

Confirmation hearings: Senate Democrats plan to press the attorney general nominee on Bush policies
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WASHINGTON - The road to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales' confirmation as the first Latino U.S. attorney general may run through two controversial places: the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Texas' death row.

Although most senators expect President Bush's longtime friend and White House lawyer to be confirmed as the 80th U.S. attorney general, Democrats plan to use a hearing on his nomination to press for answers on White House decisions they think led to the Iraqi prisoner scandal.

Gonzales' confirmation ''may be the only remaining forum in which to examine more fully the steps that were taken to weaken U.S. policy on torture in the period that led to the prison scandals at Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan,'' said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Death penalty opponents also want Gonzales questioned on how the Justice Department will apply the federal death penalty, given Gonzales' time in Texas as adviser to then-Gov. Bush.

Gonzales was part of Bush's inner circle of advisers during the executions of mentally retarded killer Terry Washington in 1997 and pickax murderer Karla Faye Tucker, for whom clemency was sought by Pope John Paul II, in 1998. While Texas' governor, Bush oversaw more than 150 executions.

The 49-year-old White House counsel would replace Attorney General John Ashcroft, who offered a letter of resignation on Election Day.

Gonzales has worked closely with several senators on judicial nominations and other issues and is well-liked by those of both parties on the Judiciary Committee. ''I just think this would be the wrong fight for them to pick,'' said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Democrats are not expected to try and block Gonzales's nomination, but are expected to grill him strongly about the accountability of the White House during the war on terrorism.

Gonzales drew criticism after the terrorist attacks in 2001 when he wrote a memo in which Bush claimed the right to waive anti-torture law and international treaties providing protections to prisoners of war. That position drew fire from human rights groups, who said it helped lead to the type of abuses uncovered in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Specifically, Gonzales' memo said the Geneva Convention that had long governed the treatment of prisoners did not apply to al-Qaida or the war in Afghanistan.

''Even Secretary of State Powell objected to Mr. Gonzales' memorandum undermining the Geneva Conventions, which Mr. Gonzales called 'obsolete' and 'quaint,' ” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Democrats say Congress has not done enough to find out how far up the chain blame should go.