MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, Haiti has a lot of problems - illiteracy among them. One answer: comic books. But first, Eric Holder was in the hot seat today. He had to answer questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee which will vote on whether Eric Holder will be the next attorney general, and it's shaping up to be one of the most contentious confirmation hearings for President-elect Barack Obama's nominees. Slate.com senior editor Dahlia Lithwick was at the hearing today. And Dahlia, what makes Eric Holder more controversial than some of the other nominees?
Ms. DAHLIA LITHWICK (Senior Editor, Slate.com): Well, it's partly Holder, Madeleine. Part of it is the department he's being asked to head up. Don't forget the Justice Department has been at the heart of so many of the big controversies of the past couple of years, from warrantless wiretapping, to torture, to Guantanamo.
But partly, you're right. It's Eric Holder himself. And the real issue today that's emerging as an issue for him is the role he played when he worked in the Clinton Justice Department approving a last minute pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich on Clinton's very last day in office.
And the fact that he did so, and did so really in violation of a lot of the protocols for approving a pardon, is raised today as an issue by minority - ranking Minority Leader Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, who suggests that this is the kind of presidential lapdog behavior that really implies that Holder is going to be no more independent than Alberto Gonzales was of President Bush.
BRAND: And I think we have a clip of tape there. Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of confirmation hearing)
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Were you aware, Mr. Holder, of the atrocious record that Rich had?
Mr. ERIC HOLDER (United States Attorney General - Nominee): 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, was a substantial tax fraud case. I knew that he was a fugitive. I did not know a lot of the underlying facts. And as I said, that was a mistake.
BRAND: And Dahlia, did that seem to mollify Arlen Specter, his response there?
Ms. LITHWICK: Not at all. I think that, in fact, Senator Specter was quite offended at the notion that this was just a mistake. And several times he pressed Eric Holder on, come on, this wasn't just a mistake. This was much worse than that. I will say that Holder described it as, quote, "the most searing experience I've ever had." He was quite honest about how just debilitating this was for him and really the extent to which this was an outlier and a barren experience in his professional career.
BRAND: OK. And you said it's not just Holder who is controversial. It's also the department itself. And what did Eric Holder say about the most controversial aspects of the war on terror?
Ms. LITHWICK: Well, I think there was a lot of good news today, Madeleine, for civil libertarians who worried about some of the slipperiness of the last Justice Department and the notion that everything was a little bit up for grabs. Holder was quite unequivocal on a couple of points this morning so far. He said, for instance, without reservation, that we are going to close the prison at Guantanamo. He said, quote, "It won't be easy." He laid out all the problems and that it will take some time. But he definitely said the prison will be closed.
He also said he's going to absolutely stand by the proposition that all interrogators have to abide by the Army Field Manual. No one gets a free pass on interrogation. He went further and said over and over again, "Nobody is above the law," quote. He said that several times. And he also said that the president cannot authorize people to break the law, which has been a really big issue during the Bush administration.
Perhaps the most important thing he said, I think for people who worry about what's happened to civil liberties in the last eight years, was what he said about torture. He said what his predecessor, Michael Mukasey, was unwilling to say about waterboarding. Here's the clip.
(Soundbite of confirmation hearing)
Mr. HOLDER: If you look at the history of the use of that technique, I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture.
BRAND: Chairman being Patrick Leahy. And so, what does that mean in terms of practice if he's confirmed? What does it mean? It'll be immediately outlawed?
Ms. LITHWICK: Well, I think that there's certainly some question about an executive order or something that happens instantly once Obama takes office that clarifies what is and what is not torture. So, certainly, I think, going forward there will no longer be a question that sometimes waterboarding is OK and sometimes it is not.
BRAND: OK. And so will the Republicans actually be able to muster the votes to stand in the way of this nomination?
Ms. LITHWICK: It doesn't look like it, Madeleine. It really looks like other than Specter this morning, no one else is pressing very hard. Most of the Republicans on the committee are asking questions about policy, about whether he will prosecute folks from the past administration, but not a lot of sense that other than Specter, this Marc Rich thing is a big deal.
BRAND: Slate.com's Dahlia Lithwick at the Senate confirmation hearings of Eric Holder to be the next attorney general. Dahlia, thank you.
Ms. LITHWICK: My pleasure, Madeleine.
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