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Mukasey Confirmation for Attorney General to Start


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: Judge Michael Mukasey's confirmation has never really been in doubt. The top Senate Democrat, Harry Reid, predicted weeks ago that Mukasey would be confirmed barring a bombshell. And yesterday, just after meeting with Mukasey, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy told a crowd of reporters...

PATRICK LEAHY: I don't see a bombshell on the horizon. I see a man who has the potential to clean up the Department of Justice.

SHAPIRO: Still, Leahy promised to ask Mukasey tough questions at today's hearing - about torture, for example. Leahy told NPR he won't accept worn-out platitudes like: this administration does not torture.

LEAHY: I think what we've had is a case where the White House has said, as most people would, well, we don't torture. But then waved around a legal document, which basically allowed torture. I want Judge Mukasey to make it very clear what will be legally allowed and what won't.

SHAPIRO: Leahy has been fighting for years to see secret Justice Department documents describing the administration's policies on torture, domestic spying and other controversies. At this hearing, Leahy said, he'll focus on the future, not the past. He predicted that once Mukasey's confirmed, he'll make a good attorney general.

LEAHY: I think he'll be a tough, no-nonsense attorney general, and I'm happy with that. He's a conservative Republican, I have no problem with that, but I also want somebody who will not let anyone interfere with prosecutors doing their jobs.

SHAPIRO: It's not the first time Mukasey has been described as tough. A. Tom Goldman(ph) used to be a prosecutor in New York, and he argued a case before Judge Mukasey. Goldman remembers an instance during the trial where the defense attorney called him A. Tom instead of Mr. Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: And Judge Mukasey called him up at the sidebar and just tore into him.

SHAPIRO: Really?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. I guess he said, you do that again, I will break you.

SHAPIRO: He said, I will break you?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. He was really mad.

SHAPIRO: Goldman says one of Mukasey's greatest strengths is his firsthand experience with national security. As a New York judge, Mukasey presided over some of the most important terrorism cases in the country.

GOLDMAN: I think that Mukasey, more than most, realizes that even though we haven't had a major attack on American soil in more than six years now, that the threat's out there.

SHAPIRO: On the home, Mukasey has received very positive reviews, even from defense attorneys who often disagree with him. But there are groups that oppose his nomination - human rights groups especially that object to some of Mukasey's writings about national security issues.

MICHAEL RATNER: This is not someone that we should trust with really fundamental rights and liberties.

SHAPIRO: Michael Ratner is head of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He doesn't believe Mukasey will do enough to protect individual rights in national security cases.

RATNER: It's difficult because I see people who - even friends of mine - say, well I've known him for 19 years, he's judicious, he's a decent guy. But when you're talking about the most major human rights crisis this country has faced - having to do with torture, renditions, preventive detention and the like - this is not a time when - because you've had a good relationship with someone, to have that be the factor.

SHAPIRO: Harvard law professor David Barron says today's hearing is Mukasey's first opportunity to turn that around.

DAVID BARRON: What he says in those hearings will do a lot to convince the thousands of people working at the Justice Department that their new leader is going to be somebody who's committed to the rule of law and independence of the Justice Department in a way that the prior attorney general does not seem to have done.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

AMOS: You can read a profile of the attorney general nominee at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.