Speaking at his Senate confirmation hearing, Alberto Gonzalez, who is currently the White House’s chief legal advisor, said he was “outraged” and “sickened” by news of the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He vowed to dedicate himself to “the rule of law” if confirmed as US attorney general.

“Torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration,” he said as the two-day hearing got underway on Thursday in Washington DC.

Nevertheless, he faced intense questions from Democrats who have found fault with him for crafting controversial White House legal guidance on the torture of terror suspects.

Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the most outspoken critics of the nomination, said the hearing would be vitally important to determine “this nominee’s role in developing interpretation of the law to justify harsh treatment of prisoners — harsh treatment that’s tantamount to torture.”

“America’s troops and citizens are at greater risk because of those actions, with terrible repercussions throughout so much of the world,” said Senator Leahy.

He said the Bush administration in its first four years had set out to “minimise, distort and even ignore our laws, our policies and international agreements on torture and treatment of prisoners”.

“The searing photographs from Abu Ghraib have made it harder to create and maintain the alliances we need to prevail against the vicious terrorists who threaten us.”

Mr Gonzales, 49, faced particularly tough questioning over so-called “torture memos” he wrote in 2002, advising Mr Bush that foreign fighters captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere should not have prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions.

The memo maintained the urgent nature of the war on terror rendered the conventions “obsolete.”

Critics have said his opinions may have paved the way for the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, including widely quoted comments that he believed the Geneva Conventions to be “obsolete” and “quaint.”

But while Mr Gonzalez defended a robust US policy on terrorism suspects, he denied responsibility for the Abu Ghraib scandal, saying it was simply morally bankrupt people having fun in a way he condemns.

He said he is committed to ensuring the US government complies with all its legal obligations, including the Geneva Convention.

Despite opposition to his appointment to the position as John Ashcroft’s successor, Mr Gonzalez’s character was praised, as was his progress from a poor immigrant family to become a Supreme Court justice in Texas via Harvard University.

His appointment is all but assured as Republicans hold the majority in the Senate.

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