Holder: Obama’s seasoned pick for attorney general

An experienced hand at Justice, he would shift priorities on detainees and domestic surveillance.

By , Staff writer

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    If confirmed, Mr. Holder will become the first African-American attorney general, the top US law enforcement officer.
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President-elect Obama’s pick of Eric Holder to serve as attorney general would bring to the new administration a widely respected lawyer with extensive experience as a judge, prosecutor, and litigator.

It would also add to the historic nature of the Obama White House. If confirmed, Mr. Holder will become the first African-American attorney general, the top US law enforcement officer.

Holder will likely win relatively easy confirmation in the Senate, political analysts say. But some note that he could face close questioning about his involvement in two controversial Clinton administration pardons: those of fugitive businessman Marc Rich and 16 Puerto Rican nationalists with the terror group FALN.

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At the time, Holder was the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, served briefly as acting attorney general in the waning days of the Clinton administration.

Holder was a co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign and served on the committee that selected Sen. Joseph Biden to run as vice president.

He is a partner at the Washington law firm Covington and Burling, where he specializes in complex civil and criminal cases and internal corporate investigations. He has also been a prominent advocate for liberal and progressive legal causes, supporting the restoration of voting rights for convicted felons and, most recently, signing on to a friend of the court brief embracing Washington’s strict ban on handguns. The US Supreme Court struck down the ban in June.

Holder knows his way around the Justice Department and is viewed as well suited to undertake what is expected to be a substantial shift in approach from the policies of the Bush administration. Those shifts will include closing the terror prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and possibly bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other Al Qaeda leaders to the United States to stand trial in American courts. Analysts also expect significant changes to US intelligence policies, domestic surveillance operations, and interrogation tactics. They anticipate a push for robust enforcement of civil liberties, civil rights, and voting rights.

Holder has held public service jobs most of his professional life. In 1988, he was nominated by President Reagan to serve as a superior court judge in Washington. In 1993, President Clinton named him to become the US Attorney for the District of Columbia. He was the first African-American to hold that job. In 1997, Mr. Clinton elevated him to the No. 2 spot at Justice, the job that will likely draw the most scrutiny.

Holder was a Clinton administration point man in defense of the highly controversial pardon of 16 convicted members of FALN. The group conducted a violent campaign with more than 100 bombings and other incidents from 1974 to 1983 in New York and Chicago. The attacks left six dead and roughly 70 injured.

Clinton officials defended the pardons, saying that none of the 16 had been directly involved in planting a fatal bomb and that they had already served 16 to 19 years in prison.

Members of Congress said the pardoned men were involved in making bombs and transporting explosives. They said that, despite administration claims to the contrary, the freed men never did renounce violence.

Some critics suggested that the pardons were aimed at helping first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton establish a political foothold with New York’s large Puerto Rican community in advance of her run for that state’s senate seat.

As deputy attorney general, Holder was called to Congress in October 1999 to explain why Mr. Clinton freed the 16 men. Holder said the president’s reasoning was protected by executive privilege and that because the White House had claimed the privilege he could not discuss the issue.

“Are you concerned that granting clemency to the FALN terrorists in this matter sends the wrong message about America’s commitment against terrorism?” Sen. Strom Thurmond asked.

“No, I am not, Senator,” Holder said. “I don’t think that anything that has been done by this president in connection with this case has in any way weakened our resolve to fight terrorism.”

Sixteen months later, Holder was back in the Senate facing questions about another Clinton pardon: Mr. Rich, the fugitive commodities trader who had fled to Switzerland to avoid prosecution in New York for alleged tax evasion and racketeering.

Questions were raised about whether the pardon was linked to donations to the Clinton library from Rich’s former wife.

Holder testified that he was preoccupied with more pressing issues. But he also testified that when he was asked for his opinion, he was “neutral, leaning toward favorable” to grant the pardon.

He said he reached that decision after he was told that Israeli Prime Minister Barak had strongly urged a pardon.

“In hindsight, I wish that I had done some things differently with regard to the Marc Rich matter,” he said in a written statement to the Senate.

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