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Holder Calls Waterboarding Torture

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

It was widely expected to be the most contentious confirmation hearing for any of President-elect Obama's cabinet picks. Senators questioned Eric Holder today, the man Mr. Obama nominated for attorney general. Holder took the opportunity to make a forceful break from the Bush administration's national security policies, and he apologized for what he called mistakes of the past. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this recap.

ARI SHAPIRO: At every confirmation hearing for an attorney general since 9/11, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, or one of his colleagues, has asked this question.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

NORRIS: Do you agree with me that waterboarding is torture and illegal?

SHAPIRO: Today was the first time a nominee gave this answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

NORRIS: I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture.

SHAPIRO: Eric Holder then went further. Senator Leahy asked...

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

NORRIS: Do you believe that the president of the United States has the authority to exercise a commander-in-chief override and immunize acts of torture?

SHAPIRO: Again, Holder gave a more direct answer than his recent predecessors.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

NORRIS: It's my belief that the president does not have the power that you've indicated.

SHAPIRO: Leahy said...

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

NORRIS: I'm glad to see we now have a nominee for attorney general who's unequivocal on this.

SHAPIRO: If confirmed, Holder will inherit a Justice Department that has relied on legal opinions crafted by Bush justice appointees. Those opinions have authorized some of the most controversial policies of the Bush administration about spying and torture. Holder promised to review, and if necessary, correct or withdraw all of those opinions by the Office of Legal Counsel.

NORRIS: It is important that these OLC opinions which are so important, as you described, that they truly reflect what the law is, that they reflect our values and I want to ensure that any OLC opinions that are in effect are consistent with those two purposes...

SHAPIRO: Holder also broke with his predecessors on the issue of media shield legislation. This is a proposed law that will protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources in federal court. The current attorney general has said it would undermine national security. Holder told the committee, he wants to check with career Justice Department attorneys about the details, but in theory...

NORRIS: I'm in favor of the concept of such a law.

SHAPIRO: Republicans have expressed concern about decisions Holder made when he was deputy attorney general under President Clinton. Holder obliquely acknowledged those concerns in his opening statement when he said, I will adhere to the precepts and principles of the Constitution...

NORRIS: ...and I will do so in a fair, just, and independent manner.

SHAPIRO: It's that independence that Republicans doubt. They fear Holder won't be able to say no to the president. Exhibit A is the Marc Rich pardon. Rich was a huge Clinton donor. The billionaire was wanted on tax fraud charges. He'd fled the country. President Clinton pardoned Rich on his last day in office. Holder oversaw pardons. Today, he called that a mistake. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In fact, it was Rich's ex-wife who donated more than $1 million to Democratic causes, including the Clinton Presidential Library.]

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

NORRIS: That was and remains the most intense, most searing experience I've ever had as a lawyer. There were questions raised about me that I was not used to hearing. I've learned from that experience. I think that as perverse as this might sound, I will be a better attorney general, should I be confirmed, having had the Marc Rich experience.

SHAPIRO: The committee's top Republican, Arlen Specter, was not satisfied.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

NORRIS: When you take a look at the hard facts, it's a little hard for me to see how you came to the conclusion you did, even conceding the fact that none of us is perfect.

SHAPIRO: Specter asked...

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFIRMATION HEARING)

NORRIS: Were you aware of this kind of a record this man had?

NORRIS: No I was not, and that was one of the mistakes that I made, I did not really acquaint myself with his record. I knew that the matter involved, it was a tax fraud case, it was a substantial tax fraud case. I knew that he was a fugitive, but I did not know a lot of the underlying facts that you have described. And as I said, that was a mistake.

SHAPIRO: Holder's confirmation seems almost certain. He would be the first black attorney general in the country's history. Holder noted that today would have been the 80th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and he said, I feel privileged just to stand in his shadow. Ari Shapiro, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 21, 2009 at 11:00 AM EST
In referring to President Clinton's pardon of financier Marc Rich, we said, "Rich was a huge Clinton donor." In fact, it was Rich's ex-wife who donated more than $1 million to Democratic causes, including the Clinton Presidential Library.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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