By James Rowley
Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The Senate Judiciary Committee, after a one-week delay, approved Eric Holder’s nomination by President Barack Obama to be U.S. attorney general and set the stage for confirmation by the full Senate.
Holder, 58, would be the first black to head the U.S. Justice Department, where he served as deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton. The panel voted 17-2 for Holder, with six of the panel’s eight Republicans supporting the nominee.
“Eric Holder is a good man, a decent man, a public servant committed to the rule of law,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said in urging confirmation. He said the Senate may vote tomorrow to confirm Holder.
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the panel’s ranking Republican, endorsed the nomination with a call for bipartisanship. “It is helpful to have as much bipartisan support as possible,” Specter said. “The benefit of the doubt belongs to Mr. Holder.”
Republican critics cited Holder’s role in Clinton’s 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and his 1999 recommendation to shorten prison sentences for 14 Puerto Rican nationalists imprisoned on sedition and weapons charges.
They also pointed to Holder’s testimony that waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, amounted to torture when it was used at least three times by the Central Intelligence Agency to question suspected al-Qaeda operatives. Republicans, who had forced the one-week postponement of today’s vote, said Holder’s position may chill intelligence gathering in the future.
Texas Republican John Cornyn, who opposed Holder’s nomination, said the nominee left the impression he went along with the Rich pardon “based on his desire to give President Clinton the answer he wanted.” Cornyn said Holder’s tenure in the Clinton administration also showed that he “failed to understand the profound threat posed by Islamic terrorism.”
Cornyn complained in a Jan. 21 interview that Holder had left ambiguous whether the Justice Department would prosecute anyone who engaged in waterboarding or authorized it. Cornyn questioned whether Holder would “expose these intelligence officials to liability” for relying “in good faith” on the Bush administration’s legal advice.
Asked at his confirmation hearings this month about possible prosecutions, particularly of Bush administration officials who authorized waterboarding, Holder said, “We will follow the evidence, the facts, the law.” Still, quoting Obama, Holder said “we don’t want to criminalize policy differences” with the Bush administration.
Holder also pledged to restore the Justice Department’s credibility and morale he said was damaged by the controversy surrounding the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. Investigations by Congress forced the 2007 resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. An inspector general’s report found that Gonzales abdicated his responsibility in the dismissals.
Departure on Waterboarding
Holder’s pronouncement on waterboarding was a departure from both Gonzales and his replacement as attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey. Neither Gonzales nor Mukasey would say whether the technique, which the CIA says it no longer uses, amounted to torture.
Holder also testified that military war-crimes tribunals used to try suspected terrorists held at the Guantanamo Navy Base in Cuba should be revamped to afford detainees more due process. He pledged to restore the rule of law in the detention and interrogation of people seized during the war on terror.
The confirmation hearings focused on Holder’s involvement in the Rich pardon and the shortening of sentences served by 14 members of the Forces of National Liberation, the Puerto Rican nationalist group known by its Spanish acronym FALN.
The FALN has claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings in the U.S., including a 1975 attack on a historic tavern in New York that killed four people and wounded 60 others. Holder said none of the people offered commutations of their prison sentences was convicted of crimes that led to death or injury.
Holder expressed regret for not opposing the pardon of Rich, who fled to Switzerland in 1983 after his indictment on charges of tax evasion and trading oil with Iran during a U.S. trade embargo imposed after U.S. diplomats in Tehran were taken hostage in 1979.
Holder, who also served as U.S. attorney in Washington and a judge in local courts, said the lessons he learned from that episode would make him a better attorney general.
Republicans said the episode showed he was unwilling to stand up to political pressure from the White House. Ex-FBI Director Louis Freeh called the pardon a “corrupt act” yet supported Holder’s nomination.
Freeh said Holder shouldn’t be blamed for Clinton’s faults, saying he was a victim of White House machinations to hide the Rich pardon decision from the Justice Department and the FBI until it was announced the day Clinton left office.
A congressional investigation found that Rich’s ex-wife Denise, a major donor to Clinton’s presidential library, lobbied Clinton. A criminal investigation of the pardon didn’t result in prosecutions.
South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said in a Jan. 20 interview that he supports Holder even though “he’s made some poor decisions” and “hasn’t shown a willingness to say ‘No’ to a political boss.”
Graham said he supported confirmation because “the president has wide latitude to pick a lawyer he feels comfortable with” as attorney general. Holder’s assurance he has learned from his mistakes “is one reason why I am voting for him,” Graham said.
To contact the reporters on this story: James Rowley in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org