Bush nominee Mukasey promises independence

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WASHINGTON, Oct 17 (Reuters) U S attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey promised today to stand up to the White House in the pursuit of justice if confirmed to replace Alberto Gonzales, who was denounced as a political tool of the administration.

''Legal decisions and the progress of cases are decided by facts and law, not by interests and motives,'' the retired judge and former federal prosecutor told Congress.

Mukasey made the declaration at the opening of the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearing on his nomination by President George W Bush to head the Justice Department as the country's chief law enforcement officer.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said yesterday, after a second private meeting with the nominee, that he expected Mukasey to be confirmed and to begin to rebuild what he described as a battered and demoralized department.

''Restoring the Department of Justice begins by restoring integrity and independence to the position of attorney general,'' Leahy said at the start of the hearing.

Mukasey said, ''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.'' Under questioning, Mukasey said he would resign if he was unable to get Bush to drop any initiative that Mukasey might believe was unlawful.

He repudiated a 2002 torture memo, written by a former Gonzales' deputy, that allowed harsh interrogation methods. The memo was later rescinded by the department under pressure.

HIRING BASED ON ABILITY Mukasey said he would review the department's legal justifications for the president's national security policies to make sure they are sound and ''change them if they are not.'' Gonzales resigned last month under pressure in Congress from Democrats and fellow Republicans who questioned his honesty and competency on a number of fronts -- from his firing last year of nine U S prosecutors to his defense of Bush's embattled warrantless domestic spying program.

Gonzales is now a subject of a Justice Department probe into whether he mislead lawmakers in congressional testimony.

The department is also looking into an admission by a former Gonzales aide that she considered a person's politics in hiring career personnel at the Justice Department.

Mukasey said if confirmed, ''Hiring is going to be based solely on competence and ability and dedication and not based on whether someone has an 'r' (Republican) or a 'd' (Democrat) next to their name.'' Mukasey refused to commit to recommending any immediate closure of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which holds terror suspects indefinitely.

But under questioning, said he would examine the issue with the hope that it eventually would be shut down because it has hurt the image of the United States.

In nominating Mukasey, Bush apparently sought to avoid a fight with the Democratic-led Congress and even join efforts to restore morale and public confidence at the Justice Department.

At the White House, Bush said, ''I urge the (Judiciary) committee to vote on this nomination this week and send it to the full Senate for a (confirmation) vote next week.'' It was not immediately clear when there would be a confirmation vote on Mukasey's nomination. Leahy has indicated the hearing will last at least two days.

REUTERS RSA RN2340

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