Holder denounces waterboarding, other forms of 'torture'

Says an assessment of past political interference with the Justice Department 'has to be done'

Evan Vucci/AP
Attorney General-designate Eric Holder testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination.

Attorney General-designate Eric Holder pledged to fight terrorism and reinvigorate the Justice Department’s "traditional missions” – to protect public safety and safeguard civil rights – at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday.

Responding to senators' questions on issues ranging from terrorism to Clinton-era pardons, Mr. Holder said nothing is more important than protecting the American people from terrorism.

“I will use every available tactic to defeat our adversaries, and I will do so within the letter and spirit of the Constitution,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Waterboarding is torture,” he said, in response to the No. 1 question at his hearing, first posed by chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, but amplified by other senators. Asked whether “painful stress positions, threatening with dogs, forced nudity, and mock executions” also constituted torture, he first said he was “not as familiar with those techniques,” then added: “I believe they do.”

At the same time, Holder laid out sharp distinctions in approach with the Bush administration's Justice Department, which has been battered by allegations of political interference and partisanship.

“An assessment has to be done and that assessment has already begun,” said Holder.

He credited outgoing US Attorney General Michael Mulcasey and Deputy Attorney General Mark Filip with doing much to “stabilize the department and restore morale.” Mr. Mulcasey took over the department from Alberto Gonzales, who resigned in August 2007 amid allegations of perjury to Congress. “All they lacked was time” to complete the task, Holder told the Justice panel.

At issue is restoring a basic principle, he said: that the Department of Justice represents “not any one president, not any political party, but the people.”

Concerns about politicization of the department cross party lines. In the 1990s, Republicans complained that Attorney General Janet Reno was too protective of the Clinton White House. Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary panel, pressed Holder on his own independence from White House influence, citing his role in the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich in 2001. My decisions were not always perfect. I made mistakes. With the benefit of hindsight I can see my errors clearly and I can tell you how I have learned from them,” he said.

Pressed on how an Obama administration would try detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Holder often declined to be specific. “I don’t think the military commissions that we now have in place have all of the due process requirements that I would like to see,” he said. He added that the president-elect was committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo.

One proposal has been to shift detainees to the US maximum security prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. “Ft. Leavenworth does not want these detainees,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas. “It gets in the way of their primary mission, which is education.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina urged Holder to sit down with US military leaders to think through how the US can protect itself and yet maintain the “moral high ground” in the treatment of detainees. Many of the detainees released from Guantanamo have gone back to fight against the United States, he said.

“I’ve struggled with that,” Holder said, adding that he recognized that good ideas do not rest on one side of the aisle. “We’re going to have to come up with an American solution,” he said.

A full Senate vote on the Holder nomination is expected next week.

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