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Holder Fields Tough Questions in Confirmation Hearing

Attorney General nominee Eric Holder answered questions at his Senate confirmation hearing on wiretapping, defining torture, and his involvement in the Clinton Administration's controversial pardons. Analysts probe the major issues of Holder's hearing.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And now the Holder confirmation hearings.

    Ray Suarez has our report.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    When he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, Eric Holder knew that, to become the nation's next attorney general, he would have to answer for controversial decisions made during his past service at the Justice Department.

    ERIC HOLDER, Attorney general-designate: Now, my decisions were not always perfect. I made mistakes. But with the benefit of hindsight, I can see my errors clearly and I can tell you how I learned from them.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    The most notable of those mistakes involved then-President Clinton's pardoning of fugitive financier Marc Rich just before leaving office in 2001.

    Rich was indicted in 1983 on charges of tax evasion, fraud, and illegal trading with Iran, and fled to Switzerland. When asked, at the last days of the Clinton presidency, for an opinion on the Rich pardon, Holder said he was neutral, leaning toward favorable.

    Holder later testified at a congressional hearing to investigate the pardon and said he had made a mistake. But Holder's admission then did little to stop committee members today from raising the issue again.

  • Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy:

    SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt., Judiciary committee chairman: How do you respond to those that say the Mark Rich pardon shows you do not have the character to be an independent attorney general? What did you learn from that experience?

  • ERIC HOLDER:

    What I have always said was that, given my — given the opportunity to do it differently, I certainly would have.

    I should have made sure that everybody — everybody, all the prosecutors in that case, were informed of what was going on. I made assumptions that turned out not to be true. I should have not spoken to the White House and expressed an opinion without knowing all of the facts with regard to that matter.

    That was and remains the most intense, most searing experience I have ever had as a lawyer.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    That response was not good enough for the top Republican on the committee, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter.

    SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, R-Pa., Judiciary committee ranking member: Now, if this were some underling or somebody who wasn't too bright, or wasn't too experienced, you would slough it off as a mistake. But given your experience and your background and your competence, and the surrounding circumstance of President Clinton looking for a cover, how do you — how do you explain it beyond simply "It's a mistake"?

  • ERIC HOLDER:

    Well, I don't mean to minimize what I did by calling it a mistake, or mistakes, in the fact that I take what I did seriously, and I have expressed regret for what I did consistently.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Holder was also questioned about his role in President Clinton's decision to grant clemency to 16 members of the Puerto Rican separatist organization FALN. The group was involved in a deadly campaign of bombings and robberies in the 1970s and '80s.

  • SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, R-Ala.:

    Do you believe that the decision and ultimate act of President Clinton to pardon these individuals was wrong?

  • HOLDER:

    I think it's a difficult decision that the president had. When one looks at the nature of the offenses that put those people in jail, these were criminals. These were terrorists. These were bad people. But the president's determination was that they had not committed any acts themselves that resulted in death or bodily injury.

    And on that basis, and given the amount of time that they had served in jail — roughly 16 to 19 years, most, I think, 19 years — and given the length of the sentences that they — they had received, it was his determination that the clemency requests were appropriate, taking all that into consideration.

  • SEN. JEFF SESSIONS:

    But do you personally now — I know the president has justified it…

  • PATRICK LEAHY:

    Senator…

  • SEN. JEFF SESSIONS:

    Do you personally have an opinion after all of this whether it was right or wrong?

  • ERIC HOLDER:

    I think that, given all that I have described, that what the president did was reasonable.

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