WASHINGTON — Eric Holder, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for Attorney General, Thursday departed from Bush administration policies by declaring that "waterboarding is torture."
In a more than seven-hour confirmation hearing, Holder also said that he'd help Obama close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba after a review of prisoners' cases. He conceded, however, that the process probably would take longer than he'd like because of the difficulty of determining which prisoners to release and how to release them.
He said that he'd consider putting some detainees on trial in federal or military courts, and continue to jail prisoners who pose a danger to national security.
In another significant break from the current administration's policies, Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he plans to review controversial interrogation memos written by the Bush Justice Department.
The current attorney general, Michael Mukasey, and his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, have refused to say whether they think that some "enhanced interrogation techniques" that Bush administration lawyers and policymakers approved may violate international and U.S. laws prohibiting torture.
However, Holder sidestepped questions about whether he intends to prosecute officials who condoned or carried out the policies, although he told committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a critic of the Bush administration's policies, that "no one is above the law."
The administration has acknowledged using waterboarding, which simulates the sensation of drowning, on several suspected terrorists, but has insisted that the United States doesn't torture.
"We will follow the evidence, the facts, the law, and let that take us where it should," he said. "But I think President-elect Obama has said it well: We don't want to criminalize policy differences that might exist between the outgoing administration and the administration that is about to take over."
There's little doubt that the Judiciary committee will approve Holder, who'd be the nation's first African-American attorney general. However, Republicans made it clear Thursday that they intended to make him squirm a bit, grilling him about his opinions on national security and raising questions about his role in former President Bill Clinton's eleventh-hour pardon of fugitive millionaire financier Marc Rich.
Holder, a former deputy attorney general under Clinton, took a humble approach in addressing the senators, acknowledging that he's made some errors during a lengthy Justice Department career.
"My decisions were not always perfect. I made mistakes," Holder said in his opening statement. "I hope that enough of my decisions were correct to justify the gratifying support I have received from colleagues in law enforcement in recent weeks."
Holder endeavored to reassure senators Thursday that he wouldn't succumb to undue political influence from the White House.
Of his role in the Rich pardon, he said, "That was and remains the most intense and searing experience I've ever had as a lawyer. I've learned from that experience. I think that, as perverse as this might sound, I will be a better attorney general should I be confirmed."
Holder's testimony appeared to soothe several Republicans. Senator Orrin Hatch, an influential Republican from Utah, said that Holder's testimony made him "feel better" about the nominee's views.
"I'm inclined to support your nomination," Hatch said.
The mostly friendly tone of the hearing marked a significant shift from the committee's exchanges with Gonzales, who by the end of his tenure was treated with disdain even by some Republicans. Gonzales resigned in September 2007 after more than a year of revelations of alleged partisan decision-making.
Critics, however, questioned whether Holder would be sufficiently independent to shield the Justice Department from political meddling by the White House and pointed to his handling of several sensitive cases, including his decision to sign off on the pardon of Rich, who'd fled to Switzerland while he was accused of evading more than $48 million in taxes and 51 counts of tax fraud.
Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, had donated about $70,000 to first lady Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign and $450,000 to Bill Clinton's presidential library fund, leading to allegations that the Riches bought the pardon.
In congressional hearings in the wake of the controversy, Holder described his position on the pardon as "neutral, leaning toward favorable," although Bill Clinton at the time cited Holder's support for a pardon as important in helping him make the decision.
Leading up to the pardon, Holder discussed the case several times with Rich's attorney, Jack Quinn, prompting criticism that he was giving Quinn special access. Quinn said that Holder, a former colleague, advised him to go straight to the White House rather than through the Justice Department's pardon attorney — a contention that Holder denied Thursday.
Holder said that he never intended for Quinn to circumvent the routine process, though the Justice Department's pardon attorney maintained that he got word of the pardon only on the day that Clinton granted it.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, was skeptical.
"When you take a look at the hard facts, it's a little hard for me to see how you came to the conclusion you did, even conceding the fact that none of us is perfect," Specter said.
Specter and others also have criticized Holder's role in a 1999 grant of clemency to 16 prisoners who'd been convicted of crimes on behalf of a violent Puerto Rican nationalist group.
Holder's supporters say he should be judged for his quarter-century of public service, not for a handful of decisions.
"Eric Holder has the character to serve as the attorney general of the United States of America," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "He passes any fair confirmation standard."
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