Eric Holder appears headed for confirmation as attorney general after declaring a new course in U.S. counterterrorism policy, but a Senate panel still wants to hear more about his decisions as a Clinton administration Justice Department official.
A second day of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday was to feature former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who supports Holder despite some past disagreements with him during the Clinton years.
Also set to speak on Holder's behalf was Frances Townsend, a former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush.
That sort of bipartisan support was evident throughout Holder's testimony Thursday, even as he declared a major break from Bush administration policy toward terror suspects. He also pledged to restore morale at a Justice Department mired in tales of political interference.
There was one angry exchange when the panel's senior Republican, Arlen Specter, said Holder's decision not to investigate Democrat Al Gore's fundraising "raises the question of your fitness for the job."
Holder hit back, saying: "You're getting close to questioning my integrity and that is not fair."
Yet, overall, Republicans did little to try to block Holder's path to become the first black attorney general in the nation's history.
From the very beginning of his testimony Thursday, Holder made clear how far the new administration will break with past policies under Bush.
"Waterboarding is torture," was his blunt response to the first question thrown at him.
That answer was one that many on the Senate Judiciary Committee had sought after years of frustrating non-answers on the subject from Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales.
The 57-year-old former prosecutor who was deputy attorney general from 1997 to 2001 pledged to shut down the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in part by sending detainees to trial in the United States, and restore the Justice Department's reputation of independence from political interference.
Holder told lawmakers he did not believe the attorney general's job was to serve as the president's lawyer — a frequent criticism of Gonzales' tenure under Bush. He also vowed to see how much harm has been done to the department by political scandals.
"One of the things I'm going to have to do as attorney general in short order is basically do a damage assessment," Holder said.
At the hearing, many Republicans chose not to aggressively attack Holder, despite pre-hearing bluster that they would challenge his record as a Clinton administration official and flex their muscle as the minority party.
"I'm almost ready to vote for you right now," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., after Holder agreed with the senator that the nation is at war with terrorists.
It was a similar story in other Senate hearings for Obama's picks to oversee the Homeland Security and Interior departments — Janet Napolitano and Ken Salazar, respectively. Both their hearings ended shortly after noon with no verbal fireworks.
Holder's testimony was just the latest sign that Obama will chart a different course than Bush in combatting terrorism. Obama plans to issue an executive order to close Guantanamo.
Holder said shuttering the prison would be difficult and would take time. Many detainees could be transferred to other countries, he said, and some could be charged and jailed in the U.S. That is a contentious proposal because many oppose the idea of bringing terrorism suspects onto U.S. soil.
The incoming Obama administration has not indicated what would happen to the detainees who were transferred to the United States. Holder said the administration was considering prosecuting the detainees in civilian courts, military courts or in some new hybrid court.
"I think we want to leave our options open," Holder said. "The one thing I can assure you and the American people and, frankly, the world is that whatever system we use, it will be consistent with our values. It will be a system that has due process guarantees. It will be seen as fair."
He also did not have an answer to how the new administration would handle detainees deemed too dangerous to release but who could not be prosecuted without endangering CIA operatives or jeopardizing intelligence methods.
After Holder issued his opinion on waterboarding, Specter turned the questioning briefly toward the 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. Holder, who was the No. 2 official at the Justice Department at the time, told the White House that he was neutral, leaning toward favoring the pardon. On Thursday, Holder repeated an apology, saying he regrets not studying the pardon more.
He called the fallout from that decision the most "searing" of his legal career, and said he had learned from the mistake.