By LARRY MARGASAK
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General-nominee Eric Holder Jr. declared Thursday that waterboarding is torture, forcefully breaking from years in which the Justice Department deftly avoided the sensitive question about U.S. interrogation methods.
In past hearings, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales, frustrated senators by repeatedly sidestepping questions about waterboarding, a harsh interrogation tactic that simulates drowning.
The controversial tactic was the first topic discussed at Holder's confirmation hearing, and he made an unambiguous statement about its nature: "Waterboarding is torture."
It was the latest signal that President-elect Barack Obama plans a sharp break from the Bush administration. As recently as last week, Vice President Dick Cheney defended waterboarding, saying it provided valuable intelligence. The CIA has used the tactic on at least three terrorism suspects, included alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
No Republican has said he will oppose Holder's nomination, but the GOP sees the confirmation hearing as the best early forum for showing that the minority party is still relevant despite a Democratic sweep in November.
After Holder issued his opinion on waterboarding, the questioning turned toward the 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. Holder, who was the No. 2 official at the Justice Department at the time, told President Bill Clinton that he was neutral leaning toward favoring the pardon. On Thursday, Holder repeated a later conclusion, saying he regrets not studying the pardon more.
But Holder said he learned from the mistake and would be a better attorney general because of the experience.