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Obama's attorney general nominee is confirmed

Eric Holder, who faced tough questioning by Senate Republicans, is the first African American to lead the Justice Department.

February 03, 2009|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Eric H. Holder Jr. won Senate confirmation Monday as the nation's first African American attorney general, easily overcoming Republican concerns about his commitment to fight terrorism and his unwillingness to back the right to keep and bear arms.

The vote was 75 to 21, with all the opposition coming from Republicans.

Holder's chief supporter, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said the confirmation was a fulfillment of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that everyone would be judged by the content of their character.

"Come on the right side of history," said Leahy, chairman of the judiciary committee.

Holder was a federal prosecutor, judge and the No. 2 Justice Department official in the Clinton administration. Even his critics agreed that Holder was well qualified, but they questioned his positions and independence, as well as his failure to oppose a controversial pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich in 2001.

The debate turned partisan in its first moments, when Leahy expressed anger that a few Republicans demanded a pledge from Holder that he wouldn't prosecute intelligence agents who had participated in harsh interrogations.

Leahy singled out Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) as one who wanted to "turn a blind eye to possible lawbreaking before investigating whether it occurred."

"No one should be seeking to trade a vote for such a pledge," Leahy said.

When Cornyn rose to announce his vote against Holder, he did not make such a demand. But he accused the nominee of changing his once-supportive position -- on the need to detain terrorism suspects without all the rights of the Geneva Convention -- to one of harshly criticizing the Bush administration's counter-terrorism policies.

"His contrasting positions from 2002 to 2008 make me wonder if this is the same person," Cornyn said. "It makes me wonder what he truly believes."

Cornyn and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said Holder was hostile to gun rights, despite a Supreme Court ruling in June that affirmed the right to keep weapons in the home for self-defense.

Holder's confirmation will trigger reviews -- and changes -- to the most controversial Bush administration policies, including interrogation tactics, terrorism trials and warrantless surveillance.

Those are some of the known issues. Even Holder doesn't know what he will find when he looks at secret memos in the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel.

Holder also will have to rehabilitate a department that under President Bush was criticized for injecting politics into hiring career officials and firing U.S. attorneys. He will have to decide whether to prosecute Justice Department officials who may have violated the law in some of those policies and tactics.

Holder also could reverse Bush's orders to former aides not to testify before Congress about their private discussions on the U.S. attorney firings.

To the satisfaction of Democrats and consternation of some Republicans, Holder said in his confirmation hearing that "waterboarding is torture."

The statement about an interrogation technique that simulates drowning was an important signal of a policy change from Bush's position.

One of Holder's most intriguing missions will be to review the Office of Legal Counsel, whose lawyers justified the use of controversial interrogation tactics and viewed themselves as attorneys for the White House.

The Justice Department's inspector general, in a report on the 2006 removal of nine U.S. attorneys, said the legal counsel's office -- in effect -- thumbed its nose at internal investigators and refused to provide a crucial document. The office said the White House counsel's office told it not to provide the information.

Holder said he would review why career prosecutors in Washington decided not to prosecute the former head of the department's civil rights division. An inspector general's report last month found that Bradley Schlozman, the former head of the division, misled lawmakers about whether he politicized hiring decisions.

Three former top aides to Bush -- Karl Rove, Harriet E. Miers and Josh Bolten -- have declined to testify about the U.S. attorney firings on orders from Bush while he still was in office. Rove and Miers at the time were former aides, raising the question of whether White House aides no longer in government could be compelled to testify.

If President Obama reverses Bush's policy, it would create a new legal issue: whether a former president's order against testifying is still valid.

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