AG hopeful Gonzales to be grilled on inmate treatment

Critics: Military brass, veterans and religious leaders condemn his notion that terror defendants do not have “Geneva” protections
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WASHINGTON - Does Alberto Gonzales, President Bush's choice to be the next attorney general, believe that the president has inherent powers to override laws and treaties and allow torture?

Does he still think the Geneva Conventions, the treaty establishing standards of fair treatment of prisoners of war, are ''obsolete'' when it comes to interrogating terrorist suspects?

And can Gonzales make the transition from White House counsel - known for zealous loyalty to his client, George Bush - to become attorney general, the nation's top law enforcement official and protector of the rule of law?

Gonzales will face these questions when his confirmation hearings begin Thursday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His involvement in a series of debates and decisions that may have paved the way for harsh treatment of prisoners - even their torture - will be a central issue.

Retired generals and admirals, veterans' groups and more than 220 religious leaders criticized Gonzales' record this week. Critics include former Gen. John Shalikashvili, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, and C. Rene Padilla, a Latino evangelical leader.

A personable lawyer with a Horatio Alger story - he was the son of Mexican migrant workers - Gonzales became Texas Gov. Bush's general counsel in 1994 and has been a close adviser since. He would be the first Latino attorney general and is often mentioned for a Supreme Court vacancy.

''Perhaps the key question for senators is, will he be an attorney general who follows the rule of law first, or is he the president's man first?'' said Scott Silliman, who heads the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University.

Few see obstacles to Gonzales' confirmation, but senators say they will closely question Gonzales on the most controversial parts of his record.

In January 2002, he advised Bush that the demands of a ''new kind of war'' on terror and the need to get information quickly from suspected terrorists ''rendered obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning prisoners.''

Over the strenuous objections of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush agreed with Gonzales that prisoners captured in the war in Afghanistan and other ''enemy combatants'' did not have Geneva Convention protections.

Gonzales also requested a memo from the Justice Department in August 2002 that asserted a president's power to set aside laws and treaties and to allow torture.

It defined torture as physical pain that is ''equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.''

It also explored ways to insulate officials from war crimes prosecution. Gonzales disavowed the memo when it was leaked last spring, and Justice officials rejected it last week.

''It was bad law, bad diplomacy, bad morality, bad politics and bad from a practical point of view,'' said John Hutson, a retired rear admiral and Navy judge advocate general who plans to testify against Gonzales.

Hutson is one of a dozen retired generals and admirals who complained that Gonzales effectively froze military lawyers out of key decisions and eroded 50 years of military justice.