WASHINGTON After two Democratic senators agreed to back his attorney general designate, President Bush on Saturday worked to seal the confirmation of Michael Mukasey.
"He is a man of character, and he had been praised by Republicans and Democrats alike for his honesty, intellect, fairness and independence," Bush said following a week of ups and downs in getting Mukasey confirmed amid a debate over waterboarding, which simulates drowning and is widely viewed as torture.
The retired judge has refused to say whether he considers the practice an illegal interrogation technique.
Bush used his weekly radio address to nudge Mukasey's nomination to the finish line, a day after Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., gave him a nod. Their backing virtually assured that the Senate Judiciary Committee would recommend his confirmation to the full Senate when it votes next Tuesday.
Leaders in both parties expect Mukasey to get at least 70 votes when the entire Senate votes on whether to confirm him to succeed former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Torture is considered a war crime by the international community and waterboarding has already been banned by the U.S. military. But CIA interrogators are believed to have used the technique on terror detainees as recently as a few years ago.
Schumer, who met privately with Mukasey on Friday to discuss waterboarding, said he was confident the nominee would enforce any law passed that bans the interrogation practice. Schumer said Mukasey told him that if Congress passes a law banning waterboarding, "the president would have absolutely no legal authority to ignore such a law."
Mukasey has called waterboarding personally offensive, but in response to questions from senators, he said he didn't know enough about it to legally define it as torture.
Bush said Mukasey could not give such a legal opinion because the program is classified and the nominee has not been briefed on it. Mukasey also did not want to telegraph information about interrogation methods to dangerous detainees, Bush said.
The president also said Mukasey did not want to issue an "uninformed legal opinion" because interrogators in the field would wonder whether any of their conduct places them in legal jeopardy.
"Congressional leaders should not make Judge Mukasey's confirmation dependent on his willingness to make a public judgment about a classified program he has not been briefed on," Bush said.
Nominated in September, Mukasey was initially considered a sure bet for confirmation until he repeatedly refused to say in Senate hearings whether he defines waterboarding as torture.
Democrats denounced the dodge, and the chairman of the committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced Friday he would vote against Mukasey.
"As an American, I believe we stand for certain high values," Leahy told reporters in Burlington, Vt. "One of them is that we don't torture, that it is illegal. And the attorney general should be willing to say that."
During waterboarding, a prisoner is placed on his back, with his legs slightly elevated and thin cloths or cellophane over his face, before being doused with water. The technique prompts asphyxiation and panic that can lead to heart attacks as the prisoner fights against the feeling of drowning.
The Pentagon has explicitly banned military personnel from using the technique while interrogating suspected terrorists. In a letter Friday to the judiciary committee, four retired military attorneys joined a host of top brass who have condemned the technique, writing, "Waterboarding is inhumane, it is torture, and it is illegal."