Eric Holder has won confirmation as the first African-American attorney general, but he’ll have little time to consider his role in history as he decides which Bush administration counterterrorism policies to reverse.
Holder was confirmed 75-21 Monday, with all the opposition coming from Republicans. He will be sworn in Tuesday by Vice President Joe Biden.
For starters, the new attorney general will learn the secrets of the Office of Legal Counsel, whose lawyers justified the use of controversial interrogation tactics and even declined to provide Bush administration documents to internal Justice Department investigators.
Holder will inherit a Justice Department wracked by Bush administration scandals over politically inspired hirings and firings. He has pledged to restore its reputation.
Holder also will play a major role in the future of terrorism detainees.
President Barack Obama, in a major policy shift, signed an executive order to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. He also created a special task force to review detainee policy; Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will serve as co-chairs.
That panel will look at options for apprehension, detention, trial, transfer or release of detainees and report to the president within 180 days.
Holder promised senators he would review why career prosecutors in Washington decided not to prosecute the former head of the department’s Civil Rights Division. An inspector general’s report last month found that Bradley Schlozman, the former head of the division, misled lawmakers about whether he politicized hiring decisions.
Another key question facing Holder is whether to reverse former President George W. Bush’s order that three of his former top aides — Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten — should not testify before Congress about firings of U.S. attorneys. Rove and Miers were former aides when Bush gave his order.
If Obama reverses Bush’s policy, it would create a new legal issue: whether a former president’s order against testifying would still be valid.
The Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance program is certain to come under Holder’s scrutiny.
After a lengthy and heated debate that pitted privacy and civil liberties concerns against the desire to prevent terrorist attacks, Congress last year eased the rules under which the government could wiretap American phone and computer lines to listen for terrorists and spies.
Holder promised one senator that he would re-examine a ruling by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey that immigrants facing deportation do not have a right to government-provided lawyers. Holder said he understands the desire to expedite immigration court proceedings, but added that the Constitution also requires that proceedings be fair.
There also could be changes in conducting warrantless surveillance.
Holder’s chief supporter, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the confirmation was a fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream that everyone would be judged by the content of their character.
"Come on the right side of history," said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.