Waterboarding Is Torture, Holder Tells Senators

Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder Jr. declared Thursday that waterboarding is torture, forcefully breaking from years in which the Justice Department deftly avoided the sensitive question about U.S. interrogation methods. Video by AP
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009

Attorney General-designate Eric H. Holder Jr. brushed aside Republican concerns about his record yesterday as he charted a new, less divisive course for the Justice Department on issues of national security, civil rights and financial crime.

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder declared that the interrogation practice known as waterboarding amounts to torture, departing from the interpretation of his Bush administration predecessors. He promised to perform a "damage assessment" to evaluate how politically motivated hiring during the Bush era continues to affect the department. And he pledged to work closely with Congress and serve as "the people's lawyer," rather than devote his loyalty solely to the incoming president, Barack Obama.

Holder, a former judge and U.S. attorney in the District, sidestepped Republican efforts to define him by his past mistakes, acknowledging errors but stressing points of agreement rather than political differences. In his comments about counterterrorism, for example, he indicated his support for several provisions of a domestic wiretapping law and promised to consider the ongoing threat posed by nearly 250 detainees at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Holder said the country remains in a state of war, but he warned against accepting a "false choice" between upholding civil liberties and protecting national security.

The United States should not "farm out" interrogation to contractors working for the CIA, he said, and the questioning of detainees should follow the safeguards spelled out in the Army Field Manual and the Geneva Conventions.

"I will use every available tactic to defeat our adversaries, and I will do so within the letter and spirit of the law," Holder told a standing-room-only audience in the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building.

Holder won the support of Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and other Republicans, even those who delivered pointed questions about his support for controversial pardons during the Clinton administration, when he served as the department's second in command. The panel today will hear from law enforcement officials who support Holder's nomination, as well as victims of a Puerto Rican nationalist group whose members won pardons in 1999 with Holder's support.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former Bush White House aide Karl Rove had singled out Holder's bid as Obama's most contentious Cabinet nomination.

But Holder appeared to defuse some of the criticism by assembling support from a broad, bipartisan law enforcement coalition and telling senators that he regretted his actions in the 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. President Bill Clinton's clemency award in that case touched off congressional investigations and a grand jury probe in New York.

"I've made mistakes," Holder said. "That was the most intense, most searing experience I've ever had as a lawyer. As perverse as this might sound, I will be a better attorney general if confirmed, having had the Marc Rich experience."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) said the hearing offered a "historic opportunity for the country to move past the partisanship of the past decade" and to install the first African American to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer.

Holder's race did not take center stage during the day-long hearing but lawmakers obliquely nodded to the issue by lauding the role that his late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone Jones, played in integrating the University of Alabama in 1963.

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