WASHINGTON — With just three words, Attorney General-designate Eric Holder capped years of angry debate over U.S. counterterrorism policy and declared a major break from the Bush administration.
"Waterboarding is torture," said Holder, President-elect Obama's pick to run the Justice Department.
Holder's blunt response to the first question at his confirmation hearing Thursday was one that many on the Senate Judiciary Committee had sought after years of frustrating nonanswers on the subject from Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales.
The answer also sent a wave of approval through the public viewing gallery where protesters, dressed in orange prison scrubs like those worn by detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military prison, held signs calling for an end to torture.
The 57-year-old former prosecutor, who would become the nation's first black attorney general, pledged to shut down the U.S. naval prison in Cuba in part by sending detainees to trial in the United States, and to 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 President Bush.
Holder appeared headed for confirmation. No Republican has announced plans to oppose Holder, and in three past confirmation hearings not a single lawmaker voted against him.
At the hearing, many Republicans chose not to aggressively attack Holder, despite prehearing 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.
After Holder issued his opinion on waterboarding, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., 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 said he learned from the mistake and would be a better attorney general because of the experience.