Confirm Eric Holder as Attorney General

Saturday, January 17, 2009

DURING a marathon hearing on Thursday, Eric H. Holder Jr. showed why he should be confirmed as the nation's top law enforcement officer.

Mr. Holder displayed an impressive grasp of the wide range of legal and policy matters facing the department, from interrogation and detention of terrorism suspects and surveillance law to community policing, DNA fingerprinting, media shield laws, and civil liberties and civil rights. He articulated clear, well-thought-out and refreshing positions on all of these matters -- particularly in those areas dealing with the war on terrorism.

Mr. Holder declared that "waterboarding is torture"; if confirmed, he would become the first attorney general in eight years to acknowledge what has been obvious since at least the Spanish Inquisition. He promised to review Justice Department memos that provide the legal framework for detainee interrogations to ensure that they prohibit torture, and he supported using the Army Field Manual as the guide for all government interrogators. He rightly condemned military commissions because they fail to provide robust due process rights for those who are subject to government detention. Yet he also cited as his top priority the protection of the country from another attack and asserted that the country is "at war" and that the battlefield extends beyond the literal ones in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr. Holder ably handled questions about his role in two controversial clemency matters during the Clinton administration. He engaged in an extensive and appropriate mea culpa over his role in the pardon of billionaire financier and fugitive Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to President Bill Clinton. Mr. Holder acknowledged his failure to fully vet the details of Mr. Rich's case and recognized that he should not have given the White House provisional approval for the move without having had more information.

Mr. Holder defended his support for Mr. Clinton's commutation of the sentences of 16 members of a Puerto Rican terrorist group based on the facts that none of the 16 had been convicted of murder and that most had served almost 20 years in prison. There is still much to dislike in the commutations themselves. But no new evidence emerged to challenge Mr. Holder's assertion that the recommendation was based on his best judgment.

If confirmed, Mr. Holder may feel inclined to distance himself from pardon decisions or to recommend against clemency in valid, but controversial, cases. He should resist this temptation. The pardon power clearly rests with the president, but the Justice Department's judgment must inform these decisions, and withholding a merited pardon is no more justifiable than bestowing one on an undeserving person.

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