U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was pressed by U.S. lawmakers Thursday about Bush administration-approved interrogation methods used on terrorist suspects and the possibility of further investigations into legal opinions that justified them. Holder also faced questions, particularly from minority Republicans, about whether detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility will come to the U.S.
Attorney General Holder said the investigation by the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility into the actions of former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers who wrote legal opinions is nearing its end.
Estimating completion in a matter of weeks, he said the subjects of the investigation have sent responses to an initial report, about which he provided no details.
Revelations about the use of waterboarding by U.S. personnel against key al-Qaida detainees have led to increased demands from Democrats in Congress for either appointment of a special counsel, or formation of an independent commission.
Holder responded this way when asked by the Democratic Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers if he would support creation of such a commission. "If there were a proceeding something that was put in place, obviously we would coordinate [and] cooperate, but as I said the selection, or the decision to do such a thing I will leave in your good hands," he said.
Repeating U.S. President Barack Obama's position that agents who relied on Bush administration legal opinions should not face prosecution, Holder said any decision to appoint a special counsel would depend on how facts develop.
He had this exchange with Texas Republican Ted Poe, who is among Republicans asserting that waterboarding of suspects such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, yielded good intelligence:
POE: "So you would take the risk that we wouldn't get this information because you're so hell-bent on not using waterboarding, is that what you're saying?"
HOLDER: "No, I would never put the American people at risk, nor would I put what is great about this country and that is the values that define us and separate us, from the very people were are trying to fight. That is something also that I will not put at risk, the safety of the American people, and who we are as Americans."
One former Justice Department lawyer who wrote interrogation opinions, Jay Bybee, has declined an invitation from the Senate Judiciary committee to testify about his role in the interrogation issue. Now a U.S. Circuit Court Judge, Bybee has said his legal opinions were legally correct, but the release of two of his memos last month sparked calls for his impeachment.
Thursday's hearing was dominated by the question of the Obama administration's process of closing the Guantanamo Bay facility and what may be done with the approximately 200 detainees there.
Among those still at Guantanamo are 17 Uighurs, ethnic Muslims from western China, held in Guantanamo since 2002 despite a U.S. determination that they are not enemy combatants.
Though a judge last year ordered the Uighurs released and transferred to the United States, a later appeals court ruling reversed that decision. Lawyers for the Uighurs have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Uighurs fear persecution by China if they are returned there. But the Bush administration, and now the Obama administration were unsuccessful in arranging their transfer to a third country.
Attorney General Holder had this response to Representative Lamar Smith who is among Republicans asserting that the Uighurs pose a terrorist threat: "The release, transfer of the people at Guantanamo, the thing that is going to guide this administration more than anything is the safety of the American people. We are not going to do anything, anything that would put the American people at risk," he said.
Democrat Bill Delahunt responded to suggestions by Republicans that the Uighurs, who he noted the U.S. Congress considers a persecuted minority, be returned to China. "Undoubtedly they would be tortured and persecuted and most likely murdered if they were returned to Communist China," he said.
Attorney General Holder also told lawmakers that an internal Justice Department investigation into the destruction by the CIA of video tapes of detainee interrogations is continuing, but declined to estimate when it would finish.