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Holder Lays Down Markers on Torture and Gitmo

(AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
Attorney General-designee Eric Holder, Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning what every reasonable person has known for years but which no Bush Administration official this side of Dick Cheney would ever admit: that water-boarding, the simulated-death interrogation tactic, amounts to torture under our laws.

Holder also refused to concede that any U.S. officers or officials who engaged in such practices, or who authorized them, ought to be granted immunity from prosecution for engaging in such odious conduct. The declaration, which drew no immediate response from Committee members, stands in stark contrast to the legal positions (and confirmation candor) offered by Holder's immediate predecessors at the Justice Department.

Holder then faced sharp questioning over his role in the pardon given to fugitive financier (and Clinton donor) Marc Rich by President Bill Clinton during the final hours of his administration. Holder told the Committee that he had made mistakes in handling the Rich matter—that he would have consulted more with prosecutors and others before signing off on the controversial pardon—but Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the ranking Republican member of the Committee, suggested that it was incredible to think that such a bright and experienced public official as Holder—who even in 2001 had a ton of government experience—would make such an obvious mistake. Expect more on this line of questioning this afternoon when the hearing resumes.

The questioning then turned to the U.S. Attorney scandal that rocked the Justice Department during the reign of Alberto Gonzales. "I have shown that I have the ability, and frankly the guts, to be independent from the people" who put me in power, Holder said. "I will be the people's lawyer." And Holder told Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) that he "would not hesitate to resign" as Attorney General if he reached an intractable point with the President and the White House. He is aware, he reassured Committee members, that the Attorney General slot is different from other cabinet level positions because of the need to adhere to the Constitution and rule of law over the partisan needs of any given White House.

On the topic of Guantanamo Bay, Holder confirmed that the notorious prison base will be closed (at which point some in the gallery clapped and cheered). He said that a substantial number of detainees could be sent to other countries, some would be able to be tried in our civilian courts, and that others would fit into a more complex category of prisoners. On this topic, then, Holder offered nothing much different from what current White House officials have pledged and promised over the past few years. Hopefully, Holder will be pressed on this issue to describe how some of these detainees will be prosecuted and how others, like 9-11 masterminds Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, will be treated since they clearly cannot be tried in public given their crimes and search for martyrdom.

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