The Senate confirmation hearings prove bruising chiefly for Al Gonzales.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 15 2009 8:08 PM

Holder Steady

The Senate confirmation hearings prove bruising chiefly for Al Gonzales.

It's enough to make you miss the poetry of an Alberto Gonzales and the seal-sleek interpretive dance of a Michael Mukasey.

Remember back when Gonzales was asked in July 2007 about whether water-boarding violated the Geneva Conventions? His response:

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

There are certain activities that are clearly beyond the pale and that everyone would agree should be prohibited. And so, obviously, the president is very, very supportive of those actions that are identified by its terms in the executive order. There are certain other activities where it is not so clear, Senator. And, again, it's for those reasons that I can't discuss them in the public. ...

When Barack Obama's nominee for attorney general, Eric Holder, is asked the same question today, the response is this: "Water-boarding is torture. … It would violate the international obligations that all civilized nations have agreed to—the Geneva Conventions."


Remember when Michael Mukasey was asked last January whether the president could override laws passed by Congress? "I can't contemplate any situation in which this president would assert Article II authority to do something that the law forbids."

Here's Holder responding to the same question today: "No one is above the law, the president has a constitutional obligation to faithfully execute the law of the United States."

Anyone promising you that today's Senate confirmation hearing for Eric Holder would be a knock-down drag-out bruiser gets paid by their traffic. Other than ranking minority leader Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who is evidently paid for his umbrage, virtually nobody on the committee is there to give him a hard time. Many are just there for a good old fashioned neck-nuzzling. (Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.: "When you stood up to President Clinton, what were you feeling?")

And to the extent anyone attempts to give him a hard time, Holder just calmly pushes back. When John Cornyn, R-Texas, asks multiple times whether Holder would agree to water-board terrorists if it meant preventing the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents (and if Jack Bauer would sign his yearbook): Holder replies, "It's hard for me to answer your hypothetical without accepting your premise," explaining that from his discussions with experts, he believes people who are tortured do not yield valuable intelligence. "The premise that underlies that, I'm not willing to accept." When Cornyn tells him that he must accept the false hypothetical, Holder insists he in fact must not.

When Holder is asked about his plans for Guantanamo, he says, "Guantanamo will be closed" (although he insists it will be complicated and take a while). Asked whether any interrogators are free to depart from the restrictions laid out in the Army Field Manual, he said that the Field Manual would be a "good place to start" to establish a uniform standard for interrogation and that he did not believe that restricting interrogations to the rules of the Field Manual would hamper the government's efforts to fight terrorism.


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