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Hearings Continue For Obama's AG Pick


In Washington, many thought that Eric Holder, the attorney general-designate, would face a tough confirmation hearing, but when he appeared before a Senate committee yesterday, he acknowledged some past mistakes and appeared to defuse much of the potential criticism. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: Republicans had a few stern questions, but for the most part, they seemed impressed. Some of that may be because so many Republicans in law enforcement have endorsed Holder, including ones who disagreed with him about controversial pardons. And some may be because Republicans, too, are tired of being stiffed by the Bush administration. If what most senators wanted was a new day, they got it right out of the starting gate, when Chairman Patrick Leahy asked about waterboarding, the interrogation technique of controlled drowning begun in the Spanish Inquisition and authorized for use against some terror suspects after 9/11 by the Bush administration.

(Soundbite of confirmation hearing, January 15, 2009)

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chair, Senate Committee on the Judiciary): Do you agree with me that waterboarding is torture and illegal?

Mr. ERIC H. HOLDER JR. (Appointee, Attorney General, Barack Obama Administration; Former Deputy Attorney General, William Clinton Administration): We prosecuted our own soldiers for using it in Vietnam. I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture.

TOTENBERG: And can the president override laws and treaties against torture?

Mr. HOLDER: Mr. Chairman, no one is above the law. The president has a constitutional obligation to faithfully execute the laws of the United States.

TOTENBERG: Republicans focused on two controversial pardons that Holder was involved in as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. His position on the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, he said, was a mistake. He told the Clinton White House he was neutral, leaning towards favorable. Holder said he'd been unaware that Rich's ex-wife had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party, but more important, he said he did not know the details of the charges against Rich.

Mr. HOLDER: That was one of the mistakes I made. I did not acquaint myself in a way that I should have about all that existed in the files about Mr. Rich. I think if I had done that, I would have come up with a different determination.

TOTENBERG: Holder, however, did not back away from his recommendation of a pardon for Puerto Rican nationals convicted of terrorism-related crimes. The men, he noted, had served almost 20 years. Their pardon was supported by leading religious figures, and their sentences were out of whack with other sentences for similar crimes.

Mr. HOLDER: They did not directly harm anyone. They were not responsible directly for any murders. But I think another factor is that we deal with a world now that is different than the one that existed then. That decision was made in a pre-9/11 context. I don't know what President Clinton would do now. I tend to think that I would probably view that case in a different way in a post-9/11 world.

TOTENBERG: Ranking Republican Arlen Specter questioned Holder about his decision not to recommend appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate then-Vice President Al Gore's fundraising. Holder acknowledged that it gave him pause when the FBI director and a top career lawyer recommended such an appointment, but he said he thought the career lawyers in the public-integrity section were correct in recommending against it. Senator Specter was not satisfied.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Ranking Republican, Senate Committee on the Judiciary): My evaluation is that a man in your position knew better. That's the whole point. But you've expressed yourself, and I've expressed myself...

Mr. HOLDER: Senator, we're getting close to a line here. I will certainly understand a difference of opinion, but you're getting close to questioning my integrity, and that is not appropriate. That's not fair. It's not fair, and I will not accept that.

TOTENBERG: That, however, was a momentary dust-up. Civility, even humor, was the hallmark of the day, as when Senator Herb Kohl, who just happens to own the Milwaukee Bucks, suggested Holder should take on President-elect Barack Obama on the basketball court. Holder responded this way.

Mr. HOLDER: He's 10 years younger than me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLDER: He plays a lot more frequently than I do. Having said that, I've got a New York City game.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLDER: I come from the city that produced Connie Hawkins, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate "Tiny" Archibald. I learned how to play ball in P.S. 127 in Queens. If you give me a little time and a little space to get back in shape, I think I could hang with him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLDER: I don't think I'm ever going to be in a position to beat him, nor do I think that would be a wise thing to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.