Grassley, Specter, Cornyn Take Holder to Task

Posted January 15, 2009 at 2:56pm

Updated: 5:13 p.m. Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans continued their broadside attacks against Eric Holder, President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for attorney general, aggressively attacking his positions on torture and a pardon for several Puerto Rican terrorists. The Thursday afternoon interaction between Holder and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) also provided the first real fireworks of the day. But Holder seemed unfazed. Cornyn, who is also the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, repeatedly questioned Holder’s decision to recommend that former President Bill Clinton pardon a group of Puerto Rican terrorists from the Armed Forces of National Liberation, known as FALN. Holder largely sidestepped those questions, saying that given the new realities after 9/11, he would have handled the pardon question differently. “I would not have ended up in the same place” if the pardon request had occurred after those attacks, he said. Cornyn also went to great lengths to try to force Holder into either agreeing to the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique or to agree that he would rather allow “tens of thousands of Americans” to die from a terrorist attack by not waterboarding a suspect. But in the closest the hearings have come to a heated confrontation, Holder repeatedly rebutted the question, maintaining that waterboarding is torture and arguing that it is not an effective technique to gather intelligence. “I’m not at all certain that waterboarding somebody, torturing somebody, whatever [term] you want to use, is going to produce the intelligence you want.” At one point, Cornyn appeared to become frustrated with Holder’s refusal to take his bait and answer the hypothetical waterboarding question directly. “I know you don’t like my hypothetical,” Cornyn said. “The hypothetical is fine, it’s the premise I don’t like,” Holder countered. Later Thursday, Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) significantly upped the pressure on Holder, going after his answers to the panel on his role in the pardon of the Puerto Rican terrorists, as well as his role in the Clinton-era pardon of billionaire fugitive Marc Rich. Republicans have accused Holder of recommending that Rich hire former White House counsel Jack Quinn as his lawyer, and of later recommending that Quinn take Rich’s case directly to the White House rather than the Department of Justice, where Holder served as deputy attorney general. But Holder repeatedly dismissed those charges as false. “I did not recommend Mr. Quinn. … I never told Quinn to go to the White House with the pardon application,” Holder told the Judiciary panel. Specter accused Holder of asking Justice Department Pardons Attorney Roger Adams to redo his report on the FALN pardon request to give himself “cover” to support the pardons. But Holder rejected that characterization. “I was not asking for cover, I was asking for him to do his job,” Holder said, saying that he was not satisfied with the quality of the report. Likewise, Specter pointed to a series of conversations Holder had with Rich’s attorneys and others on the pardon, and asked whether he stood by his earlier characterization of his knowledge of the case as a “passing acquaintance.” Although Holder stuck by his previous statements, Specter dismissed his answers. “That doesn’t sound like a passing acquaintance to me,” he said. Following a brief afternoon break, Holder found himself under renewed scrutiny from Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who took him to task once again on the pardon issue. Showing a clip of a secret FBI surveillance tape taken of two of the Puerto Rican terrorists manufacturing explosives, Grassley noted that they had planned on using them but had been thwarted when federal agents arrested them a short time later. Noting that Holder has called the pardons “reasonable” because the terrorists did not hurt anyone, Grassley argued that it was only because of the FBI intervention. But Holder defended his position, saying that under the law an intervening action can dramatically change how the legal system handles a crime. The fact that their arrest was the only thing that avoided deaths “might be so, … but it’s the difference between murder and attempted murder,” Holder said. “The ultimate crimes are fundamentally different.” Earlier in the day, under questioning from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Holder refused to commit to not pursuing criminal charges against Vice President Dick Cheney and Justice Department officials over the terrorist surveillance program. “Senator, no one is above the law. We will follow the evidence, the facts, the law and let that take us where it will,” Holder said, although he did concede that neither he or Obama “want to criminalize policy differences.”