A corporate lawyer linked to White House debates on narrowing the definition of torture has suddenly withdrawn his bid to become the second-ranking official at the US Justice Department, in what amounts to a new political setback for President George W. Bush.
In a brief announcement made Friday, the White House said it was recalling the nomination of Timothy Flanigan to become deputy attorney general that was sent to the Senate for confirmation last June.
No formal explanation was given, but in his resignation letter to Bush, Flanigan vaguely wrote about "uncertainty concerning the timing of my confirmation" as the main reason for his unwillingness to go through with the process.
The withdrawal followed a decision by the Senate Judiciary Committee to postpone a vote on Flanigan's nomination that was to have taken place last week.
Instead, the committee planned to invite Flanigan to a second hearing later this month.
Senators made clear they planned to question him about his role in setting the administration's detainee interrogation policy when he worked at the White House during Bush's first term.
It would also question him on his ties to high-profile Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is under investigation for allegedly mishandling native-American tribal funds as he lobbied on behalf of native-American gambling interests.
Flanigan, who is now general counsel at Tyco International, a major manufacturing conglomerate, has worked closely with Abramoff in that capacity.
But he was also deputy to current US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales when the latter worked at the White House as legal counsel to Bush during the president's first term.
At that time, the White House was actively involved in discussing a 2002 memorandum written by the Justice Department that in essence called for narrowing the definition of torture to allow for forceful interrogation of prisoners captured in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world as part of the war on terror.
The ill-fated document, later repudiated by the administration under public pressure, suggested that only acts causing "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" should meet the legal definition of torture.
Techniques like hand-slapping, threats of live burial and simulated drownings could be acceptable to make certain prisoners talk, according to the proposal.
Flanigan's pullback came amid signs of a brewing battle between the White House and Congress over treatment of terror suspects as both Democratic and Republican lawmakers expressed growing concern over reports of prisoner abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and other detention centers run by the United States or its allies in the war on terror.
Earlier Friday, the Senate defied a White House veto threat and unanimously passed a 445-billion-dollar defense spending bill that contains language banning cruel and degrading treatment of any foreigner in US government custody.
The detainee amendment sponsored by Republican Senator John McCain was supported by 28 retired US generals, including former secretary of state Colin Powell.
"We've got to tell the world we will not torture people," McCain said after the vote.
Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Flanigan's nomination was in real trouble, primarily because of doubts about his qualifications.
"Rather than appointing professionals with relevant experience, the Bush administration has promoted a culture of cronyism by tapping political allies and close friends for key positions," the Vermont senator said in a statement.
© Copyright 2005 AFP