WASHINGTON, Nov 6 (Reuters) A divided US Senate Judiciary Committee today approved Michael Mukasey as US attorney general despite concerns about the retired judge's refusal to denounce simulated drowning as unlawful torture.
On an 11-8 vote, with two Democrats joining all nine Republicans, the committee sent President George W Bush's nomination of Mukasey to the full Democratic-led Senate for anticipated confirmation as chief US law enforcement officer. The vote is likely to take place next week.
Bush's selection of Mukasey to replace former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales initially drew broad and bipartisan support. But Mukasey ran into trouble at his confirmation hearing when he declined to say if he considered the so-called waterboarding interrogation technique illegal torture.
Critics have accused the United States of torturing suspects in the war on terrorism, with the CIA reportedly using the simulated drowning on at least three high-level detainees after the September 11 attacks.
Bush says torture is prohibited but refuses to disclose interrogation techniques.
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, opposed Mukasey and took a verbal shot at the White House, saying, ''Nothing is more fundamental to our constitutional democracy than our basic notion that no one is above the law.'' ''This administration has undercut that precept time after time.
They are now trying to do it again with an issue as fundamental as whether the United States of America would join the ranks of those governments around the world that approve of torture,'' Leahy said.
Sen Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ranking Republican on the committee, said he, too, had concerns about Mukasey's refusal to declare waterboarding illegal.
But Specter said Mukasey personally assured him that if Congress passes legislation to specifically declare waterboarding illegal, he would uphold it.
Specter then pointedly noted that Mukasey promised at his confirmation hearing to resign if Bush violated the law.
In making the case for Mukasey, hailed as a fair and independent-minded former judge, Specter said the Justice Department is in need of new leadership after the stormy tenure of Gonzales, who resigned under bipartisan pressure amid complaints he had injected politics into the administration of justice.
''We urgently need, at this moment, someone to run that department, because right now, it's being run down,'' Specter said.
The two committee Democrats who voted for Mukasey were Charles Schumer of New York, who had suggested Bush nominate the former judge as attorney general, and Dianne Feinstein of California.
Mukasey wrote the Judiciary Committee's 10 Democrats last week saying he personally considered waterboarding to be ''repugnant.'' But he said he could not rule on the legality of any classified US interrogation techniques unless he first has an opportunity to review them. He promised to do so if confirmed.
REUTERS NC SK RAI2336