WASHINGTON – 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.
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 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.
Holder’s testimony was just the latest sign that Obama will chart a different course than Bush in combatting 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.
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.”
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