Obama justice pick breaks with Bush on waterboarding

Thu Jan 15, 2009 7:36pm EST

(Updates with end of hearing)

By Randall Mikkelsen and Jim Vicini

WASHINGTON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for attorney general broke with the Bush administration to call waterboarding "torture" and vowed to fight financial crimes at his Senate approval hearing on Thursday.

Eric Holder also addressed a major criticism by Republicans and acknowledged erring when, as a deputy attorney general, he supported an 11th-hour pardon by former President Bill Clinton in 2001 for a fugitive financier, Marc Rich.

He pledged that the Guantanamo prison for foreign terrorism suspects, opened after the Sept. 11 attacks and denounced internationally by human rights groups, would be closed. But he said it would take longer than previously hoped.

In keeping with Obama's pledge to restore a U.S. image tarnished by abuse of terrorism suspects, Holder said he would stay within the Constitution and protect rights, even while fighting terrorism "with every available tool."

"We must remain a beacon to the world," Holder said. "We will lead by example."

Republicans had been expected to make Holder's confirmation contentious, partly because of the Rich pardon.

But the 57-year-old Holder, who would be the first African-American U.S. attorney general, appeared almost certain to win approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"You acquitted yourself well," Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said after several hours of testimony. Committee senators later finished their questioning of Holder in the evening.

With Obama to be sworn in as president on Tuesday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy urged Holder's quick confirmation so he could take his place on Obama's team.

"The responsibilities of the attorney general of the United States are too important to have this appointment delayed by partisan bickering," Leahy, a Democrat, said.

Holder said the Justice Department "must wage an aggressive effort against financial fraud and market manipulation." The collapse of credit markets has triggered widespread criminal fraud investigations of companies and individuals.

Holder also pledged tough enforcement of antitrust laws.

"WATERBOARDING IS TORTURE"

Questioned by Leahy about waterboarding, which involves simulated drowning, Holder said: "I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, that waterboarding is torture."

President George W. Bush insists that his administration has not tortured people, but the CIA has acknowledged using waterboarding, which is widely condemned internationally, on three terrorism suspects. It says it has stopped the practice.

Holder said he would ensure that interrogations complied with treaty obligations and were effective. He pledged to review all Justice Department legal opinions on issues such as interrogation policy, wiretapping and presidential power.

His comments signaled that Obama's Justice Department would not tolerate waterboarding. It remained unclear whether Holder would seek to prosecute past instances but Obama has spoken of a need to move beyond the issue.

Bush's current attorney general, Michael Mukasey, and his predecessor Alberto Gonzales riled Democrats and some fellow Republicans by refusing to be drawn in confirmation hearings on whether waterboarding was torture.

CIA Director Michael Hayden has said the agency acted within the law, using Justice Department advice.

Asked about Holder's comments on waterboarding, he told reporters: "It's an uninteresting question for the CIA. We don't do that. We haven't done it since March 2003." However, he said: "Those techniques worked."

Holder said the Guantanamo prison "will be closed," but it would take time to devise a fair system for dangerous inmates who cannot be tried.

Leahy and Republicans questioned Holder about the Rich pardon, which some critics have said showed he may be subject to political pressure. Rich's ex-wife was a big Clinton donor.

"I will be a better attorney general, having the Marc Rich experience," Holder said. Rich took refuge in Switzerland in 1983, facing U.S. charges of tax crimes and trading with Iran.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, put Holder on notice that Republicans would be watchful for signs of undue political influence. "The attorney general has an independent duty to the people," Specter said.

Gonzales resigned in 2007 amid charges he had allowed the department to become politicized.

"I will be an independent attorney general, I will be the people's lawyer," Holder said.

Specter later sharply criticized Holder for opposing an independent counsel for then-Vice President Al Gore's fundraising practices after the 1996 re-election campaign.

Specter accused Holder of favoritism that showed a lack of judgment. "It raises a question about your fitness for the job," he said.

Holder defended his decision in the Gore case, saying it was based on the facts and the law. (Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro) (Editing by Philip Barbara and Eric Beech)