Image: Attorney General-designate Eric Holder
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
Attorney General-designate Eric Holder has said terrorists "are not prisoners of war." He also downplayed criticism that prisoners were being mistreated.
updated 12/2/2008 10:01:21 AM ET 2008-12-02T15:01:21

President-elect Barack Obama's choice to become the next attorney general, Eric Holder, once defended the Bush administration's arguments for holding detainees at Guantanamo Bay, a position that runs counter to his more recent comments — and to a signature policy of the incoming administration.

Holder, a confidant to Obama on legal issues, recently has been a leading voice in the chorus calling to close Guantanamo Bay, which he has described as an international embarrassment. Likewise, Obama has called it a "sad chapter in American history," pledged to close the island prison and criticized the Bush administration for arguing that terrorism suspects aren't covered by standards set by the Geneva Conventions.

But in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Holder defended the Bush administration's policies at Guantanamo.

Asked whether terrorism suspects could be held forever, Holder responded: "It seems to me you can think of these people as combatants and we are in the middle of a war," Holder said in a CNN interview in January 2002. "And it seems to me that you could probably say, looking at precedent, that you are going to detain these people until war is over, if that is ultimately what we wanted to do."

Just weeks later, Holder told CNN he didn't believe al-Qaida suspects qualified as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

"One of the things we clearly want to do with these prisoners is to have an ability to interrogate them and find out what their future plans might be, where other cells are located," said Holder, the former deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration. "Under the Geneva Convention, you are really limited in the amount of information that you can elicit from people."

Holder said it was important to treat detainees humanely. But he said they "are not, in fact, people entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention. They are not prisoners of war." He also downplayed criticism that prisoners were being mistreated.

"Those in Europe and other places who are concerned about the treatment of al-Qaida members should come to Camp X-ray and see how the people are, in fact, being treated," he said.

Those were essentially the arguments of the Bush administration. Since then, those arguments have been criticized by human rights groups, leading Democrats, and Holder himself.

"We must close our detention center in Guantanamo Bay," Holder told the American Constitution Society this summer. "A great nation should not detain people, military or civilian, in dark places beyond the reach of law. Guantanamo Bay is an international embarrassment."

Holder added that he never thought he'd see the day where the "Supreme Court would have to order the President of the United States to treat detainees in accordance with the Geneva Convention."

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Those comments are in line with Obama's views. Holder did not return e-mail and telephone messages seeking comment about his earlier interviews. Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman in Obama's transition office, restated Obama's commitment to opposing torture.

"Eric Holder shares that view," she said. "The president-elect has complete confidence that Eric Holder will be an attorney general who will restore respect for the rule of law and for our international commitments."

Obama's advisers are crafting plans to close Guantanamo Bay, release some detainees and bring others to the United States to face trial. One unanswered question, however, is what to do with detainees who could not be prosecuted in criminal courts without jeopardizing national security.

The Justice Department under Holder almost certainly would help answer that question.

Video: Should Gitmo be closed? In introducing Holder and other members of his national security team, Obama said he welcomed differences of opinion.

"I assembled this team because I am a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions," he said. "I think that's how the best decisions are made.

But he made it clear that the final decision ends on his desk.

"I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out," Obama said, "and I will expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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