About the best we can say about Attorney General Michael Mukasey's testimony Wednesday in the Senate is that he was no Alberto Gonzales, with the frequent memory lapses and possibly intentional misstatements. But that is a very low bar. On torture, domestic spying and other important matters, Mr. Mukasey parroted the Bush administration's deplorable line. He was particularly disappointing in his see-no-evil approach to the misconduct at the Justice Department before he arrived.
The American people deserve better from their highest law-enforcement official, who was making his first appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee since taking office in November. To a disturbing degree, he has adopted his predecessor's habit of saying precisely what the White House wanted to hear.
It should not have been hard for Mr. Mukasey to admit that waterboarding - the odious practice of making prisoners believe they are about to be drowned - is torture. He frankly conceded that if it were done to him it "would feel that way." But he weaved and dodged questions from senators about whether it is torture when it is done to other people, and whether it is illegal.
Mr. Mukasey also pushed Congress to give immunity to telecommunications companies for any illegal acts they committed while helping the administration carry out its outlaw domestic spying program. Mr. Mukasey is responsible for enforcing the law. Pushing Congress to immunize lawbreakers, especially before it learns what laws were broken, is inconsistent with this duty.
Mr. Mukasey took office in the wake of a scandal - accusations that federal prosecutions were politicized, that nonpolitical positions were filled with partisans and that Mr. Gonzales lied about it to Congress. These serious charges did not go away simply because Mr. Gonzales did. Mr. Mukasey needs to ensure that they are investigated, and to assure the public that any misconduct in his department has been cleaned up.
He has yet to do so. In his written testimony, Mr. Mukasey ignored the scandal that roiled his department last year. His answers to questions from senators on the subject were lackadaisical. He seemed to know and care little about well-publicized charges by Scott Bloch, the chief of the Office of Special Counsel, that the Justice Department is impeding his investigation.
Mr. Mukasey was equally disappointing about the refusal of certain administration witnesses to answer Congressional subpoenas to testify about the United States attorneys scandal. He suggested that if the administration believes that executive privilege shields them, that ends the matter. He could not be more mistaken.
Mr. Mukasey has taken some important steps to depoliticize the Justice Department, notably establishing a better wall between the White House and the department. His testimony was an unfortunate reminder, however, that he has yet to show the independence and respect for the rule of law that the job requires.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company