Eric Holder, who would be the nation’s first African-American attorney general, appeared headed for confirmation as the first round of his questioning ended this evening before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Democrats are in the majority, and Republicans held off from the toughest questioning.
After Holder agreed that the nation is at war, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said jokingly: “I'm almost ready to vote for you right now.”
The nominee scored points with the committee and the gallery when he conceded that torture does not lead to reliable intelligence. He remarked that the United States needs to live up to its own principles — even when locked in a global war on terrorism.
“The decisions that were made by a prior administration were difficult ones. It is an easy thing for somebody to look back in hindsight and be critical of the decisions that were made,” Holder said. “Having said that, the president-elect and I are both disturbed by what we have seen and what we have heard.”
Former U.S. Attorney Sheldon Whitehouse, now a Democratic senator from Rhode Island, praised the nominee, noting that he would bring dignity and independence back to a Justice Department that’s been marred by political interference.
“These are truly not Republican and Democratic issues,” Holder said, pledging to work with Congress to resolve tough questions such as what to do with the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Holder acknowledged during earlier testimony that he had made mistakes in the 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, according to the Washington Post.
“That was the most intense, searing experience . . . I’ve ever had,” Holder said. “This sounds perverse but I think I will be a better attorney general, if confirmed, having had the Marc Rich experience . . . It was not typical of the way I’ve conducted myself in a careful, thoughtful career.”
The committee’s ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., got the confirmation hearing rolling with a bang Thursday morning.
“Next to the president, there is no federal office more important than the attorney general,” Specter declared. “The attorney general has an independent duty to the people and to uphold the rule of law.”
In his opening statement, Specter, a former prosecutor, promised he would grill Holder on the Patriot Act and on detainee interrogation tactics.
But it was Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who fired off the loaded question: “Do you agree with me that waterboarding is torture and illegal?”
Holder responded, “I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, that waterboarding is torture.”
The man in the hot seat has a lot of experience — and thus there is a lot of ground for the committee members to cover in the vetting process.
After graduation from Columbia University School of Law, Holder joined the Department of Justice and was assigned to Public Integrity Section in 1976 to investigate government corruption.
President Reagan nominated Holder for associate judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in 1988. He served five years.
President Clinton nominated him in 1993 for U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a position he held for four years. He was appointed Clinton’s deputy attorney general in 1997.
In the 11th hour of Clinton’s term, Holder was asked whether the president should pardon Rich, a wealthy commodities dealer who had spent years running from tax charges. Holder said he was “neutral, leaning towards favorable” on the pardon. Clinton later said he relied on Holder’s advice when he decided to issue the pardon.
Considering the nature and length of Holder’s experience, Specter complained that the minority did not have enough time to investigate Holder’s background both in the public and private sectors. Holder is presently a partner in the elite Washington firm of Covington and Burling.
Specter further lamented that panel Democrats failed to back his request to issue subpoenas to witnesses who could testify about Holder’s role in Clinton clemency decisions. Included in this witness list was former Justice Department pardon attorney Roger Adams.
Holder testified that he recognized that the attorney general position requires some distance from the president. In response to a question on the issue from Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., Holder said he would be ready to resign if President-elect Obama refused to follow his advice on critical legal issues of constitutional dimension.
In his opening statement, Holder promised to devote more resources to prosecuting financial fraud and civil rights violations. He told the panel, however, that national security would be his prime priority.
“I will use every available tactic to defeat our adversaries and I will do so within the letter and the spirit of the Constitution,” Holder said.
As the session ran into the lunch hour at noon, Holder promised that he would examine and correct whatever role politics played in hiring decision at Justice in the Bush era, according to a running report by the Washington Post.
On that same issue, Holder said he would make a point of reviewing the reasons why the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. declined last week to bring a criminal false statements case against Bradley Schlozman, who allegedly misled Congress about the basis for his hiring decisions at the department’s civil rights division.
As to the always nettlesome issue of the U.S. detainee camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Holder said the new administration is reviewing legal standards for the detainees, offering no details. “I think we want to leave our options open,” he testified.
Holder did suggest, however, that he would be amenable to considering legislative proposals that would preempt independent contractors from doing detainee interrogations on behalf of the military or the intelligence sector.
Holder also testified that it was unlikely that the new administration would ticker with the 2008 law that gives immunity from lawsuits to telecommunications companies that cooperated with U.S. government efforts to engage in warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens.
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