Holder Says Waterboarding is Torture

AG nominee also admits mistakes in the Clinton era pardoning of Marc Rich.

January 14, 2009, 6:34 PM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 2009— -- 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 Admits Marc Rich 'Mistake'

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."

Vowing that he would consult with the involved prosecutors and work to improve the overall pardon process within the department, he said, "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, having had the Mark Rich experience."

Specter pursued the issue further: "Given the background of this man, it's hard to brush it off, it seems to me, as a mistake. The guy had a reprehensible record. The guy was a fugitive," he said. Contending that Holder, who had years of experience with the department, was "heavily involved" in the pardon, he asked, "How do you explain it beyond simply 'It's a mistake?'"

Holder told the lawmaker that he didn't mean to "minimize" the issue by referring to it as a mistake, and that he takes his role in the matter "seriously."

Pulling out his glasses to examine a sheet of paper listing Rich's offenses, Specter questioned whether Holder had familiarized himself with the fugitive's alleged crimes before rating the petition. Admitting that he wasn't familiar with the detains at the time, Holder said he did know the matter involved "a substantial tax fraud case" and his fugitive status, but that he "did not know a lot of the underlying facts that you have described. And as I said, that was a mistake."

The tension was eased a bit when Kohl quizzed Holder on his ability to exercise his "responsibilities independently of what the president may or may not like" -- on the basketball court.

Referring to one of the President-elect's favorite pastimes, Kohl asked, "in the event, Mr. Holder, he invites you to the gym for a little one-on-one, will you promise us and the American people that you will do everything in your power to defeat him as badly as you can? My vote depends on your answer."

As the hearing room erupted into laughter, Holder, who was co-captain of New York City's Stuyvesant High School basketball team, pointed out that Obama is a decade younger, and plays more often. "Having said that, I've got a New York City game," he added, pointing out that the city has produced greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Nate Archibald, and that he learned to play "at PS 127 in Queens."

Though with a bit of practice, Holder said, "I think I could hang with him," but that he probably couldn't beat him, "nor do I think that would be a wise thing to do."

Justice Department Independence

Holder began the hearing by saying that he intends to "lead an agency that is strong, independent, and worthy of the name the Department of Justice" if confirmed by lawmakers.

Saying he feels the "full weight of this responsibility" to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," but that he would do so "in a fair, just and independent manner."

Laying out his goals for the department, Holder said terrorism would be his top priority, but that he would also work to restore the credibility of the Justice Department and will "reinvigorate the traditional missions of the Justice Department."

"Without ever relaxing our guard in the fight against global terrorism, the department must also embrace the historic role in fighting crime that it has, in protecting civil rights, preserving the environment, and ensuring fairness in the marketplace," he said.

Leahy championed Holder's appointment as a step toward realizing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because Holder would be the first black attorney general if confirmed. Leahy said Holder would help right a department still reeling from accusations of political bias during the tenure of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"Americans have to be able to trust their Justice Department. That trust can never be squandered or taken for granted," Leahy said, claiming that career professionals at the department have been "misused and demoralized."

Holder said the Justice Department needs to rise above political bias, a nod to the era of Gonzales, who resigned after accusations that the department had improperly fired at least nine U.S. attorneys for political reasons, as well as allowed politically biased hiring practices to take hold within the department.

On Wednesday, the department's inspector general released the latest in a series of reportson the issue, alleging that the one-time head of the department's Civil Rights Division made hiring decisions based upon the applicants' political leanings.

"What we have seen revealed in these inspector general reports is almost unbelievable to me. It is clearly abhorrent. And it's inconsistent with the way in which I would run the Department of Justice," he said.

Sources say Holder, 57, has been participating in mock hearings to prepare for today's grilling.

Holder spent most of his career with the Justice Department, most recently serving in the No. 2 spot of deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. He has spent the eight years since leaving that post as a partner at Washington law firm Covington & Burling.

"The responsibilities of the attorney general of the United States are too important to have this appointment delayed by partisan bickering. We have known and worked with Mr. Holder for more than 20 years" and confirmed him for three past appointments, Leahy said, adding that his record merits respect and deserves support.

President-elect Barack Obama announced Holder's nomination last month. Holder served on Obama's presidential campaign and worked with Caroline Kennedy to help select Joe Biden as the vice presidential candidate during the summer.

President-elect Barack Obama announced Holder's nomination last month. Holder served on Obama's presidential campaign and worked with Caroline Kennedy to help select Joe Biden as the vice presidential candidate during the summer.

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