WASHINGTON — Skirmishing erupted Tuesday over the nomination of Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general, with Democrats complaining that the White House was withholding memos on his views of prisoner torture, and an unlikely collection of generals and military veterans joining human rights groups in opposition.
The White House counsel is expected to win approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which on Thursday begins the first of the confirmation hearings for President Bush's second-term Cabinet nominees. Gonzales, 49, a close advisor and confidant of the president since Bush's days as Texas governor, would be the first Latino attorney general.
But Democrats were expected to demand answers about Gonzales' role as a leading architect of the legal underpinnings of the administration's war on terrorism, including policies on military tribunals, enemy combatants and torture that have been rejected by the courts or repudiated by the administration itself.
Last week, the Justice Department, which Gonzales would lead as attorney general, published a toned-down version of a legal opinion on the permissible bounds of torture under international and U.S. law, replacing an August 2002 opinion that torture was permissible so long as it did not result in pain equivalent to that of serious injury such as organ failure or death.
As White House counsel, Gonzales had solicited the original opinion on behalf of the CIA. The revised memo explicitly disavows portions of the earlier document.
As Democrats and the White House sparred over the release of torture-related memos, a dozen retired generals and admirals and a group representing more than 3,000 veterans and their families voiced concern over Gonzales' role in creating policies that, they said, could subject captured American soldiers to retaliatory torture.
And the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org announced plans to debut on Thursday a 30-second television advertisement opposing Gonzales. It said the ad would paint the nominee as the "legal mastermind of torture tactics," which allegedly led to abuses of military prisoners and suspected terrorists in Iraq and at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Gonzales was the author of a January 2002 legal opinion advising Bush that suspected terrorists picked up in Afghanistan did not qualify for prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Convention -- a view that Bush embraced in an executive order.
Gonzales wrote, among other things, that the war on terrorism presented a "new paradigm" that rendered the protections of the Geneva Convention "obsolete."
He also solicited an August 2002 memo from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that identified a number of legal defenses for U.S. operatives suspected of torturing prisoners in Afghanistan, and which held that the president's war powers may transcend federal restrictions on torture.
Portions of the Justice Department memo were included in a Pentagon working group report, prepared on the eve of the Iraq war, on permissible means of interrogation of military detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Democrats and others said one of the main questions about Gonzales was whether he endorsed the Justice Department memo and urged its inclusion in the Pentagon document.
Some Democrats on the Judiciary Committee complained that the White House was refusing to turn over documents that illuminated Gonzales' role.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee's ranking Democrat, accused Gonzales of stonewalling over key documents.
"In fact, I and other senators have requested a number of documents from you and other administration officials that have not been released," Leahy wrote in a letter to Gonzales dated Tuesday.
The missing documents, according to Leahy's letter, include a copy of the final version of Gonzales' January 2002 memo to Bush on whether the Geneva Convention applies to Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers.
The White House said that it had substantially complied with the requests, and that all documents related to interrogation techniques and policies had been made public.
The decision not to disclose the final memo on the Geneva Convention was based on long-recognized principles that "deliberative" communications did not have to be publicly disclosed, Deputy White House Counsel David Leitch said in a Dec. 30 letter released by Leahy. Leitch added that the White House was not claiming executive privilege in withholding the document.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Gonzales was looking forward to his confirmation hearing, and defended administration policies. "The policy that the president set, which Judge Gonzales is responsible for making sure is followed, was very clear: We adhere to our laws and our treaty obligations," McClellan said. "That's the policy of the United States government, and that's what we expected to be followed."