WASHINGTON -- Appeals court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, a White House lawyer and staff secretary to President Bush, told Senate Democrats yesterday that he learned about the controversies involving warrantless wiretapping, legal uses of torture and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff by reading the newspapers.
Kavanaugh, 41, is slated to become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.
During his second and final hearing before the Judiciary Committee, Democrats quizzed him on whether he had played a role in those legal controversies.
Several said they felt burned by their confirmation of Justice Department lawyer Jay S. Bybee in 2003 to be a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals based in San Francisco. A year later, they learned Bybee was the chief author of the so-called "torture memo."
That was a legal analysis prepared for the White House, asserting that the president had the authority to order harsh treatment of foreign prisoners, perhaps even torture, to obtain intelligence in the war on terrorism.
"I was not aware of that memo until it was disclosed in the news media in 2004," Kavanaugh told Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
He also testified that he knew "nothing at all" about the president's decision in 2001 to authorize the National Security Agency to intercept phone calls coming into the United States from suspected terrorists abroad.
Congress in 1978 prohibited wiretapping in the United States without a search warrant from a judge. Kavanaugh said he learned of the White House policy to bypass the law when The New York Times revealed it late last year.
Kavanaugh said he did not know lobbyist Jack Abramoff and was not aware of his dealings with the White House.
"Whatever I learned about that matter, I learned it by reading the newspapers," he said.
He also said he was not involved in an apparent White House effort in summer 2003 to leak the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, which triggered a special prosecutor's investigation. She is the wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had publicly criticized Bush for implying that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Africa.
"I do not know anything about the facts and circumstances of that matter," Kavanaugh said.
From 2001 to 2003, Kavanaugh was an associate White House counsel. Since then, he has been the staff secretary, a job he described as overseeing the paper flowing to Bush.
Republicans strongly defended Kavanaugh yesterday as a well-qualified nominee. He is expected to win the committee's approval on a 10-8 party-line vote tomorrow.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said he plans to bring the nomination to a Senate vote by the end of the month. He described Kavanaugh as a nominee who will "practice judicial restraint and respect the rule of law."
"His forthcoming and candid responses before the Senate Judiciary Committee today further confirm that he will be the kind of fair and independent judge America expects in its courtrooms," Frist said in a statement after the hearing.
David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.