WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday that President George W. Bush never authorized torture of detained terrorism suspects, but he refused to release internal memos that discuss when torture is allowed.
In a testy three-hour Capitol Hill hearing, Ashcroft repeatedly rejected Democratic demands for memos recently leaked to the media which say that treaties and laws do not bar Bush from authorizing torture of terrorism suspects.
Ashcroft said Bush "has issued no such order" allowing torture or immunizing interrogators from prosecution.
"He has made no order that would require or direct the violation of any law of the United States ... or any treaty to which the United States is party," Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But Ashcroft would not say whether Bush issued any order concerning the interrogation of detainees. He also ducked questions about whether he agreed with a March 2003 memo written by administration lawyers saying that Bush as commander-in-chief could approve any type of interrogation.
"This administration rejects torture," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft's replies and refusal to release memos angered Democrats who suggested the memos foment torture.
"We know when we have these kinds of orders what happens," Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, flashing color photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse. "We get the stress test, we get the use of dogs, we get the forced nakedness."
Ashcroft shot back, "The suggestion that somehow this administration is engaged in conduct that provided a basis for that activity is simply false."
Republicans said memos should be withheld to avoid helping the enemy train to withstand interrogation techniques.
Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said Ashcroft "may be in contempt of Congress" for refusing to turn over the March 2003 memo and a Justice Department memo from August 2002.
Ashcroft said he wouldn't disclose the memos because "it is essential ... that the president have the opportunity to get information from his attorney general that is confidential."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the memos provided more than information - "they had an effect on policy and what happened."
The Pentagon, downplaying the leaked memos, said it adopted interrogation methods for al-Qaida suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that did not constitute torture and complied with international treaties.
Ashcroft said yesterday that those detainees are not subject to protections of treaties because al-Qaida is not party to such treaties. But, he added, Bush said "we'll follow and accord principles of respect similar to those in the Geneva Conventions in dealing with al-Qaida warriors that we apprehend."
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