Suddenly, Mum's Mukasey's Word
On Wednesday Michael Mukasey said all the right things to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Yesterday he didn't say nearly enough. Some senators are understandably frustrated, but the fact remains: If he is confirmed as attorney general, Mukasey will -- by his mere presence -- singlehandedly improve the professionalism and independence of the Justice Department.
If the committee had taken a voice vote Wednesday, Mukasey would have been confirmed unanimously. Yesterday's testimony shows that is no longer a possibility, as Mukasey repeatedly frustrated committee Democrats with evasive answers to pressing questions.
Did White House counselors caution him against appearing too moderate or conciliatory toward Democrats? Did committee members simply ask more pointed questions? Did Mukasey drink from the Cup of Addington? Your guess is as good as mine.
Here is one such disappointing exchange, as chronicled in the New York Times:
"Is waterboarding constitutional?" [Mukasey] was asked by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, in one of today's sharpest exchanges. "I don't know what is involved in the technique," Mr. Mukasey replied. "If waterboarding is torture, torture is not constitutional."
Mr. Whitehouse described Mr. Mukasey's response as a "massive hedge" since Mr. Mukasey refused to be drawn into a conversation over whether waterboarding, which has been used by the Central Intelligence Agency to question terrorist suspects, amounted to torture.
"It either is or it isn't," the senator continued. "Waterboarding is the practice of putting somebody in a reclining position, tying them down, putting cloth over their faces, and then pouring water over them to simulate drowning. Is that constitutional?"
Mr. Mukasey repeated his answer: "If it amounts to torture, it is not constitutional." Mr. Whitehouse said he was "very disappointed in that answer -- I think it is purely semantic."
"I'm sorry," Mr. Mukasey replied.
Sorry, indeed. Mukasey should have been more forthcoming about waterboarding than he was. Either he thinks it is torture or he doesn't -- anyone could come to a conclusion based upon Whitehouse's definition. And the last thing we need from the Justice Department is more obfuscation and semantics.
But the fact is that as much as anyone would love to transform Mukasey into the second coming of Elliot Richardson, he is in the end a conservative jurist who isn't always (or even frequently) going to agree with, say, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). He is, after all, President Bush's nominee.
So don't panic. Remember, it could be -- it was -- so much worse.
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