Senate confirms new US attorney general

( AFP ) - The US Senate late Thursday confirmed Michael Mukasey as the country's new attorney general, despite criticism of his refusal to say whether an interrogation method called "waterboarding" was legal.

Mukasey was confirmed on a 53 to 40 vote in the Democrat-controlled senate.

President George W. Bush's pick for the country's top law enforcement officer had appeared to be in jeopardy until this week because Mukasey had declined to declare that waterboarding was torture and therefore illegal.

Waterboarding, which critics say amounts to simulated drowning and torture, has been reported as having been adapted for use by US interrogators after the September 11, 2001 attacks to wrest information from "war on terror" suspects.

The White House refuses to say what the United States does and does not do to detainees, and says Mukasey has not had the classified briefings needed to be able to assess alleged US interrogation practices.

In an early Friday statement just after the confirmation vote, Bush thanked the senate for the confirmation, describing Mukasey in a statement as "a man of strong character and integrity" who "will be an outstanding attorney general."

"Now that judge Mukasey has been confirmed, I look forward to working with the Senate to fill the other senior leadership positions at the justice department so that America has the strongest, most capable national security team during this time of war," he said.

A retired judge deemed an expert on national security legal questions, Mukasey was nominated for attorney general after Alberto Gonzales -- an architect of contentious US "war on terror" legal tactics -- resigned in August after a scandal-tainted tenure.

On Tuesday, two influential Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, salvaged Mukasey's nomination, deciding to back him despite their misgivings.

The chair of the committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, voted against the nomination saying there was no question that waterboarding was illegal.

Bush recently criticized lawmakers for demanding Mukasey express his legal opinion on the interrogation method, and said that questions about the interrogations were "unfair" because "he doesn't know whether we use that technique or not."

While Mukasey sidestepped questions about waterboarding during his recent testimony before lawmakers, he denounced a 2002 Justice Department memorandum that offered an extremely limited definition of torture and authorized, in the name of presidential war powers, some controversial techniques.

Mukasey said the memo, "to paraphrase a French diplomat, was worse than a sin, it was a mistake. It was unnecessary."

The document was made public in 2004, and the Bush administration was forced to rescind it in the face of a public outcry.

Mukasey served as a federal judge in New York for 19 years and is close to former New York mayor and now Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.

Among the high-profile cases he oversaw was the 1993 trial of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the "Blind Sheikh" who was sentenced to life in jail for plotting to blow up New York landmarks.

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