Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder indicated today he would make a dramatic departure from the last two attorneys general by asserting that "waterboarding is torture" and drew applause by promising to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
Waterboarding, a harsh interrogation technique which simulates drowning, has drawn criticism from lawmakers. Officials within the Bush administration have acknowledged that the CIA has used the method on terror detainees after the 9/11 attacks, but insisted that it is not torture.
Responding to a question about waterboarding from committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Holder said, "I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture."
Holder, who has been a vocal critic of the administration's policies in the war on terror, explained his stance further, saying, "If you look at the history of the use of that technique used by the Khmer Rouge, used in the inquisition, used by the Japanese and prosecuted by us as war crimes. We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam."
The current Attorney General Michael Mukasey when asked at his confirmation last year whether waterboarding constitutes torture declined to directly address the issue.
As for the terror suspect detention facility, Holder told Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., that "Guantanamo will be closed" and that steps are being taken to carry out that directive.
The statement prompted clapping from some audience members. Protestors clad in orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by detainees were later seen holding up signs with anti-torture messages.
It will not be an easy task, Holder told the panel, sorting through the detainees currently held at the facility and finding countries that will accept them. Last Sunday on "This Week", President-elect Obama acknowledged the task's legal complexity, and said it will not likely be done within his first 100 days in office.
In the weeks leading up to today's hearing, the top Republican on the panel, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, had been critical of Holder's involvement in President Clinton's 11th-hour pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who had fled prosecution on charges of tax evasion, racketeering, fraud and making illegal trade deals with Iran.
Critics claimed Rich, who took up residence in Switzerland, received clemency because of the large donations his ex-wife made to the Democratic Party and the Clinton Library project.
Holder, who graded the application "neutral leaning towards favorable," told Congress a month later that in hindsight, he should not have recommended the pardon. Specter said that Holder's judgment in the Rich matter called his integrity into question.
Holder told the panel today that he's "made mistakes," including his actions in the Rich matter, which were "not typical of the way in which I've conducted myself as a careful, thoughtful lawyer," he said.
"I've accepted the responsibility of making those mistakes. I've never tried to hide. I've never tried to blame anybody else," he said. The scandal "was and remains the most intense, most searing experience I've ever had as a lawyer."