Live From the Holder Confirmation Hearing
By Carrie Johnson
Former U.S. Attorney Sheldon Whitehouse, now a Democratic senator from Rhode Island, says Holder will bring "dignity" and independence back to a Justice Department that's been tarnished by political interference.
Holder vows to "walk the halls" at the department if he is confirmed and to oversee young lawyers to ensure "that what we have seen in the recent past is not replicated."
Round One of Holder questioning is almost finished, with few new disclosures and no hard punches thrown at the nominee.
Eric Holder is back on the hot seat, except that the temperature in the caucus room has significantly cooled. He's engaged in a polite exchange with Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) about how to handle detainees captured in the war on terror.
Holder agrees with Graham that the United States is in an ongoing war with an unconventional enemy. "I'm almost ready to vote for you right now," Graham says, even though he recognizes they may have significant political differences.
The nominee says he has "struggled with that" issue of how to handle some of the most difficult cases of a set of 250 odd detainees at Gitmo.
"These are truly not Republican and Democratic issues," Holder says, and he vows to work closely with Congress to resolve the tough questions.
The Senate hearing has recessed until 2:15 pm, but not after Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions praised Holder's late sister in law, Vivian Malone Jones, for her efforts to integrate the state university there more than 40 years ago.
Holder and his supporters leave the hearing room with broad smiles on their faces.
Holder just promised Democrats that he would perform a "damage assessment" at the Justice Department to better understand the impact of politics in hiring decisions during the Bush years.
Holder praised department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine and said he would look closely at four reports issued by internal watchdogs over the past year for signs of "structural damage" at the institution.
The nominee also vowed to review the reasons why the U.S. Attorney's office in D.C. last week declined to bring a criminal false statements case against Bradley Schlozman, who allegedly misled Congress about the basis for his hiring decisions at the department's civil rights division.
President-elect Obama is canvassing legal and military advisers for their suggestions regarding how to handle the 250-odd detainees still ensconced in the U.S. controlled military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Holder tells lawmakers.
Under questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.), Holder says, the administration is reviewing legal standards for the detainees, demurring to offer more details. "I think we want to leave our options open," Holder says.
He is repeatedly telling senators that the president acts most strongly when he acts in accordance with "congressional intent" -- long a point of contention in the Bush years.
And he says he is open to considering legislative proposals that would bar independent contractors from performing detainee interrogations on behalf of the military or the intelligence community.
Finally, Holder says he is not inclined to divert from a 2008 law that gives immunity from lawsuits to telecommunications companies that cooperated with U.S. government efforts to engage in warrantless surveillance of American citizens. As a senator, Obama opposed the provision but ultimately voted in favor of legislation that contained the immunity provisions.
"Unless there are compelling reasons I don't think we would reverse course," Holder says.
Amid calls for criminal investigations and prosecutions of government lawyers and officials who engaged in the wiretapping and interrogation practices, Holder says he has not yet been "read into" the classified programs. He reminded the Senate panel of comments by Obama, who has said he is wary of "criminalizing" policy differences.
Nominee Holder says he made mistakes in the 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, but warns the committee not to take an investigative report on the matter prepared by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) as the "gospel" on the issue.
"That was the most intense, searing experience ... I've ever had," Holder says. "This sounds perverse but I think I will be a better Attorney General, if confirmed, having had the Marc Rich experience.... It was not typical of the way I've conducted myself in a careful, thoughtful career."
Stay tuned -- Sen. Specter says he will come back to the issue later.
Responding to criticism from GOP lawmakers, Holder says he recognizes the attorney general post requires some distance from the president. Under pressure from Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) Holder says he would be prepared to resign if President-elect Obama refused to follow his advice on critical legal issues of constitutional importance.
Kohl, owner of the Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team, followed up with a lighter approach: Will you, Kohl asked, "promise us and the American people to defeat [Obama] as badly as you can" on the basketball court?
"Senator Kohl, he's 10 years younger than me," Holder said as the standing room only crowd erupted in laughter. "Having said that, I've got a New York city game.... I learned to play ball at P.S. 127 in Queens.... If you give me a little time, I can hang with him. I don't think I'll ever be in a position to beat him, nor do I think that would be a wise thing to do."
Muses Leahy, the panel chairman: "I've been here 34 years. That's the first time that question has ever been asked."
Eric Holder Jr. is delivering his opening statement -- in which he promises to devote more resources to prosecuting financial fraud and civil rights violations. He tells lawmakers that national security, however, will be his top priority.
"I will use every available tactic to defeat our adversaries and I will do so within the letter and the spirit of the Constitution," Holder says.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy jumps in with a question that has tripped up two of Holder's predecessors at the nominations table.
"Do you agree with me that waterboarding is torture and illegal?" the lawmaker asks.
After tracing the history of the simulating drowning tactic to the Khmer Rouge and other troubling regimes, Holder responded, "I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, that waterboarding is torture."
A Code Pink protester in the audience forcefully nods his head.
Ranking Member Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), a former prosecutor early in his life, is laying out the lines of questions he will pose to nominee Holder.
"Next to the president, there is no federal office more important than the Attorney General," Specter says. "The Attorney General has an independent duty to the people and to uphold the rule of law."
He says he will probe Holder's position on the counterterrorism legislation known as the Patriot Act and on Bush era interrogation tactics -- the latter rousing a cheer from the pink and orange clad protesters in the room.
Specter also complains that the minority did not have enough time to investigate Holder's extensive background in law enforcement and private practice. He says panel Democrats should have supported his request to issue subpoenas to witnesses who could shed more light on Holder's role in Clinton clemency decisions, including former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White and former Justice Department pardon attorney Roger Adams.
A Senate confirmation hearing for Eric H. Holder Jr., the nominee to serve as attorney general, is getting underway. Holder, a former Clinton era Justice Department official, just arrived in the historic Russell caucus room surrounded by family members and friends from the Washington legal and civil rights communities. Shortly, retired senator John Warner (R-Va.) and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton will introduce Holder to a panel of Republican lawmakers who signaled they will ask him tough questions about his role in clemency decisions made by then-President Bill Clinton.
Demonstrators from the Code Pink group are bearing signs against torture and the Bush administration's war on terror policies -- subjects of other questions likely to emerge for Holder in the course of a long day.
Posted at 11:24 AM ET on Jan 15, 2009
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