Mukasey Says He'd Run An Independent Justice Department

Wednesday, October 17th 2007, 9:52 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey on Wednesday pledged to strike a delicate balance between keeping the nation safe and protecting the civil liberties of Americans.

``Protecting civil liberties, and people's confidence that those liberties are protected, is a part of protecting national security, just as is the gathering of intelligence to defend us from those who believe it is their duty to make war on us,'' Mukasey said as his confirmation hearing began. ``We have to succeed at both.''

His statement was reassuring to Democrats seeking an attorney general comfortable with standing up, if need be, to the president who nominated him. But Mukasey was facing tough questions, too, about whether he could set the leaderless Justice Department back on its feet after a season of scandal under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

``This is a job interview for a big job, a big job that has become even bigger,'' Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said as he opened the proceedings. ``The next attorney general has to begin to regain the public trust.''

Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from Mukasey's home state of New York, said he already has heard the answer he wanted in a private meeting with Mukasey a day earlier.

``The most important qualities we need in an attorney general right now are independence and integrity,'' said Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from Mukasey's home state of New York, as he introduced the nominee.

Schumer said he asked the nominee, ``Will you have the courage to look squarely into the eyes of the president of the United States and tell him 'no,' if that is your best legal and ethical judgment?''

Mukasey, Schumer said, replied: ``Absolutely. That is what I am there for.''

Leahy and Schumer, along with Majority Leader Harry Reid, have predicted Mukasey will win quick confirmation after the panel's hearings this week.

Nonetheless, Mukasey, 66, was facing questions aimed at eliciting firm pledges of independence from the Bush White House, particularly on techniques for interrogating terrorism suspects and the president's controversial eavesdropping program. In private meetings with senators, Mukasey has pledged to conduct an independent investigation of those and other policies.

``The Justice Department's mission includes advising the other departments and agencies of government, including the president, on what choices they are free to make and what limits they face,'' Mukasey said. ``Here too, the governing standard is what the law and Constitution permit and require.''

He quoted former Attorney General Robert Jackson, who said that the issue between authority and liberty was not a choice between a right and a wrong. ``That never presents a dilemma,'' he said. ``The dilemma is because the conflict is between two rights _ each in its own way important.''

In the troubled twilight of Bush's second term, Mukasey's nomination is a political peace offering.

The president nominated him after Schumer suggested that Mukasey would be a suitable replacement for Gonzales _ quieting, for the moment, the storm over whether the White House improperly influenced the firings of nine federal prosecutors and other matters.

``There are still some in the administration that want the Department of Justice to be the political arm of the White House,'' Leahy, D-Vt., said after meeting with Mukasey on Tuesday. ``I want that to change, and I think he can change it.''

Mukasey once worked as a reporter but gave it up to pursue a career in law. He was nominated to the federal bench in 1987 by President Reagan and eventually became the chief judge of the high-profile U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He played a key role in the courts' response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, signing material witness warrants to round up Muslim suspects.