Holder: Waterboarding torture, Rich pardon mistake

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Attorney General nominee Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday called waterboarding “torture” and admitted he made a “mistake” in recommending a pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich.

Mr. Holder, who is President-elect Barack Obama’s pick for the top law enforcement officer, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he will use every tool at his disposal to fight terrorism, while expressing some sharp philosophical differences with the Bush administration.

He also said during the day-long hearing that he wants to ensure politics don’t play an improper role in the Justice Department and sought to allay the fears of some Republicans that he would simply be a “yes man” for the White House.

“The Department of Justice, first and foremost, represents the people of the United States not any one president, not any political party, but the people of this great country,” said Mr. Holder, 57, who would become the nation’s first black Attorney General.

The hearing is expected to continue Friday with testimony from witnesses, including former FBI Director Louis Freeh.

One of the hearing’s most pointed moments came when Mr. Holder used three words to express his opinion about waterboarding. “Waterboarding is torture,” he said.

The technique has been a major point of criticism against the Bush administration, which authorized the tactic as part of its “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Administration officials defended its use, arguing it helped them obtain a confession from 9/11-mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. And Bush appointees for attorney general - Michael B. Mukasey and Alberto R. Gonzales - did not say waterboarding was torture.

Mr. Holder said the technique, which simulates drowning, was “used by the Japanese and prosecuted by us [after World War II] as war crimes. We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam.”

Mr. Holder also said the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be closed and added that he doesn’t believe the current military tribunals under which suspected terrorists are tried are sufficient.

“I don’t know exactly what system we would put in place or what system we would utilize in order to try those people,” he said. “But 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.”

Mr. Holder faced three rounds of questioning during about eight hours of testimony and steady criticism from Republican members about his work as a high-ranking Justice Department official during the Clinton administration.

He acknowledged making a mistake in recommending fugitive financier Mr. Rich receive a pardon, calling it “the most intense, most searing experience I’ve ever had as a lawyer. There were questions raised about me that I was not used to hearing.”

Mr. Rich was accused of doing business with Iran while American hostages were held in that country. He received a pardon in 2001 after his wife donated large amounts of money to Democrats, including to Mr. Clinton’s presidential library fund.

Mr. Holder said he should have known more about the case and contacted the prosecutors handling it before making a recommendation.

“I’ve learned from that experience,” Mr. Holder said. “I think that, as perverse as this might sound, I will be a better attorney general, should I be confirmed, having had the Mark Rich experience.”

About the Author
Ben Conery

Ben Conery

Ben Conery is a member of the investigative team covering the Supreme Court and legal affairs. Prior to coming to The Washington Times in 2008, Mr. Conery covered criminal justice and legal affairs for daily newspapers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He was a 2006 recipient of the New England Newspaper Association’s Publick Occurrences Award for a series of articles about ...

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