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Waterboarding is torture, Holder tells Senate

Answering a question that two previous attorney generals had avoided, Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder Jr. on Thursday told Senators that he considers waterboarding to be torture.
Attorney General
Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., shake hands just prior to Holder's confirmation hearing on before the Senate Judiciary Commitee on Thursday. Evan Vucci / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With just three words, Attorney General-designate Eric Holder capped years of angry debate over U.S. counterterrorism policy and declared a major break from the Bush administration.

"Waterboarding is torture," said Holder, President-elect Barack Obama's pick to run the Justice Department.

Holder's blunt response to the first question at his confirmation hearing Thursday was one that many on the Senate Judiciary Committee had sought after years of frustrating non-answers on the subject from Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales.

The answer also sent a wave of approval through the public viewing gallery where protesters, dressed in orange prison scrubs like those worn by detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison, held signs calling for an end to torture.

Pledges to shut down Gitmo
The 57-year-old former prosecutor, who would become the nation's first black attorney general, pledged to shut down the U.S. naval prison in Cuba in part by sending detainees to trial in the United States, and restore the Justice Department's reputation of independence from political interference.

Holder told lawmakers he did not believe the attorney general's job was to serve as the president's lawyer — a frequent criticism of Gonzales' tenure under President George W. Bush. He also vowed to see how much harm has been done to the department by political scandals.

"One of the things I'm going to have to do as attorney general in short order is basically do a damage assessment," Holder said.

Holder appeared headed for confirmation. No Republican has announced plans to oppose Holder, and in three past confirmation hearings not a single lawmaker on the committee voted against him.

At the hearing, many Republicans chose not to aggressively attack Holder, despite pre-hearing bluster that they would challenge his record as a Clinton administration official and flex their muscle as the minority party.

"I'm almost ready to vote for you right now," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., after Holder agreed with the senator that the nation is at war with terrorists.

Flare-ups with Sen. Arlen Specter
As the hearing stretched into the evening, there was a flare-up between Holder and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Specter, the senior Republican on the committee, challenged Holder's decision during the Clinton administration not to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate fundraising by then-presidential candidate Al Gore.

"It's so clear that it raises the question of your fitness for the job," Specter said.

The nominee hit back.

"You're getting close to questioning my integrity and that is not fair. I will not accept that," Holder said.

Otherwise, there was little confrontation in the confirmation hearing, and it was a similar story in other Senate hearings for Obama's picks to oversee the Homeland Security and Interior departments — Janet Napolitano and Ken Salazar. Both their hearings ended shortly after noon with no verbal fireworks.

Holder's testimony was just the latest sign that Obama will chart a different course than Bush in combating terrorism. As recently as last week, Vice President Dick Cheney defended waterboarding, a harsh interrogation tactic that simulates drowning, saying it provided valuable intelligence.

The CIA has used the tactic on at least three terrorism suspects, included alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

As a practical matter, Holder said torture does not lead to reliable intelligence. And on principle, he said the United States needed to live up to its own high standards, even in the face of terrorism.

Won't second-guess Bush administration
Yet he would not second-guess the Bush administration's calls.

"The decisions that were made by a prior administration were difficult ones. It is an easy thing for somebody to look back in hindsight and be critical of the decisions that were made," Holder said. "Having said that, the president-elect and I are both disturbed by what we have seen and what we have heard."

Obama has described Guantanamo Bay, where terrorist suspects have been for years as "enemy combatants" without being charged, as a "sad chapter in American history." He plans to issue an executive order calling for the prison to be closed.

Holder echoed that stance Thursday but said shuttering the prison would be difficult and would take time. Many detainees could be transferred to other countries, he said, and some could be charged and jailed in the U.S. That is a contentious proposal because many oppose the idea of bringing terrorism suspects onto U.S. soil.

The incoming Obama administration has not indicated what would happen to the detainees who were transferred to the United States. Holder said the administration was considering prosecuting the detainees in civilian courts, military courts or in some new hybrid court.

"I think we want to leave our options open," Holder said. "The one thing I can assure you and the American people and, frankly, the world is that whatever system we use, it will be consistent with our values. It will be a system that has due process guarantees. It will be seen as fair."

He also did not have an answer to how the new administration would handle detainees deemed too dangerous to release but who could not be prosecuted without endangering CIA operatives or jeopardizing intelligence methods.

Learned from mistake
After Holder issued his opinion on waterboarding, Specter turned the questioning briefly toward the 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. Holder, who was the No. 2 official at the Justice Department at the time, told the White House that he was neutral, leaning toward favoring the pardon. On Thursday, Holder repeated an apology, saying he regrets not studying the pardon more.

He called the fallout from that decision the most "searing" of his legal career.

Holder said he learned from the mistake and would be a better attorney general because of the experience.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., later questioned Holder about his role in President Bill Clinton's decision to grant clemency to Puerto Rican separatists involved in the deadly 1982 bombing of a New York City federal building. The 16 members of the Armed Forces of National Liberation served 19 years in prison before the clemency was awarded.

Holder said Thursday that it was a difficult decision for Clinton but described it as "reasonable," contending that those released from prison did not carry out the violent acts. Former FBI officials have disputed that view.