Barack Obama’s nominee for attorney general has declared that waterboarding is torture, said the Guantanamo prison facility will be quickly closed and is expressing serious reservations over "enhanced interrogation techniques" used against terrorist suspects under the Bush administration.
Eric Holder’s comments, before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, are the most striking statements by an Obama nominee about the Bush administration’s interrogation practices, and they show that Obama’s pick for the nation’s top law enforcement position is prepared to make major changes in the legal execution of the war on terror.
"I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture," Holder said, responding to a question from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).
Holder also rejected the argument made by Bush administration officials that the president's power in a national emergency overrode constitutional restrictions.
"No one is above the law," Holder said.
Holder’s confirmation hearing was expected to have fireworks because Republicans were gearing up to attack him over his involvement in the 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. But his views about how terrorism suspects should be detained, interrogated and tried are proving to be the most substantive aspect of his hearing.
Holder said that Obama intends to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but he would not commit to a timetable for doing so.
"Guantanamo will be closed," Holder said in response to a question from Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.). "Steps are being taken as we speak."
Holder, though, warned, "this will not be an easy task."
Roughly 250 detainees remain incarcerated at Guantanamo, and Holder said some of them will be sent to other countries while others will be tried in U.S. courts.
Holder also expressed concerns over "enhanced interrogation techniques" used on detainees, and he committed to resigning from office if he were ever asked to approve a presidential action that, in his view, violated the Constituton.
Holder said the fate of potentially dangerous detainees who cannot be tried or deported will slow closure of the facility.
Holder is also pushing back against questions about his involvement in President Bill Clinton’s pardon of Rich.
"My conduct, my actions, in the Rich matter is a place where I made mistakes," Holder said.
Holder called the controversy over the Rich pardon "the most intense, most searing experience I've ever had as a lawyer."
Holder then argued, "as perverse as this sounds, that I will be a better attorney general because I had the Marc Rich experience."
Holder admitted under questioning from Sen. Arlen Specter that he was not fully aware of Rich's record, including allegations of arms dealing, before recommending a pardon to former President Clinton.