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Gonzales’ Role in Torture Ruling To be Key Issue in Senate Hearing

By David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel, intervened directly with Justice Department lawyers in 2002 to obtain a legal ruling on the extent of the president’s authority to permit extreme interrogation practices in the name of national security, current and former administration officials said Tuesday.

Gonzales’ role in seeking a legal opinion on the definition of torture and the legal limits of how much force could be used on terrorist suspects in captivity is expected to be a central issue in the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings, which are scheduled to begin on Thursday on his nomination to be attorney general.

The request by Gonzales produced the much-debated Aug. 1, 2002, memorandum by the Justice Department that defined torture narrowly and said that Bush could circumvent domestic and international prohibitions against torture in the name of national security.

Until now, administration officials have been unwilling to provide details about what role Gonzales had in the production of the memorandum by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. He has spoken of the memo as a response to questions, without saying that most of them were his.

Current and former officials who talked about the memorandum have been provided with first-hand accounts about how it was prepared. Some discussed it in an attempt to clear up what they viewed as a murky record in advance of Gonzales’ confirmation hearing. Others spoke of the matter apparently believing that the Justice Department had unfairly taken the blame for the memo.

A White House spokeswoman, Erin Healy, said Tuesday that while Gonzales personally requested the August opinion, he was only seeking “objective legal advice and did not ask the Office of Legal Counsel to reach any specific conclusion.”

As the White House’s chief lawyer, Gonzales supervised the production of a raft of legal memorandums that shaped the administration’s legal framework for conducting its battle against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Of the documents that have been made public, Gonzales is the author of only one.