Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is right to support the confirmation of Judge Michael Mukasey as attorney general. And he’s right that the nomination presents lawmakers with an “extremely difficult” decision because of Mukasey’s refusal to take positions on the critical issue of coercive interrogation techniques used in the war on terrorism.
The Justice Department badly needs responsible, sober leadership at this critical juncture. Mukasey, whose nomination cleared the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, represents the best practical hope for achieving that in the waning days of the Bush administration.
In a recent letter to Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the nominee declared that while he knows enough to believe waterboarding — simulated drowning by interrogators — is “repugnant,” he doesn’t know if it’s torture or illegal. That may be a lawyerly dodge to avoid admitting that U.S. actions are in violation of international conventions, but it is also deeply troubling because of what it says about America’s fraying commitment to fundamental values in these perilous times.
How do we expect to convince Middle Eastern nations that they can’t be responsible members of the family of nations as long as they deny basic human rights and sanction torture when we do the same things in the name of fighting terrorism? How can we win the hearts and minds of hostile populations across the region when we piously lecture about freedom while using verbal gymnastics to justify torture and other extra-legal means in dealing with foreign detainees?
That said, the Justice Department faces an unprecedented crisis in the wake of the departure of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. It needs a leader who can calibrate the difficult balance between protecting the homeland and protecting the values that homeland stands for. It needs a leader who, as Schumer said last week, will “put the rule of law first” and not serve as a mere “yes” man to the president. Mukasey has a record that suggests he will meet that important standard.
Moreover, if the Senate fails to act, President George W. Bush is likely to appoint a caretaker leader for the Justice Department without the advice and consent of the Senate. That could compound the problems created by an administration that rightly emphasizes the need to fight the terrorists that would destroy us, but sometimes forgets the values that distinguish us from our barbaric enemy.