Friday, January 16, 2009

Holder Signals New Era at Justice Department, Vows Independence as Attorney General

Jan. 15, 2009 – 1:59 p.m.

Attorney General-designate Eric H. Holder Jr. outlined positions on detainee treatment and presidential authority that differ starkly from those of the Bush administration during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing Thursday.

In response to the very first question from committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy , D-Vt., Holder said flatly that the simulated drowning technique of interrogation known as “waterboarding” is torture.

“I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture,” Holder said. The statement was an unequivocal departure from the stance of Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey , who refused to make such a statement at his own 2007 confirmation hearing.

The statement has potentially significant implications for government agents who waterboarded suspected terrorists since 2001. And it is symptomatic of the new approach Obama is expected to take to the detention and treatment of suspects in the war on terrorism.

During the first few hours of the hearing, there were practically none of the fireworks that Republicans had promised regarding Clinton administration controversies involving Holder, who served as deputy attorney general in Clinton’s second term. Holder faced almost no questions, other than from Arlen Specter , R-Pa., about controversial pardons President Bill Clinton issued in 1999 and 2001.

Holder was circumspect about whether he would mount criminal prosecutions of Bush administration officials for who executed counterintelligence and counterterrorism policies, saying he would have to examine the intent of government officials and whether they acted “under the thought” that they had formal legal authorization. He said that Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinions that were “reasonably relied on” and “appropriately and in good faith drafted” would be taken into account.

For a full version of this story and the latest coverage, please visit CQ Politics.

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