Former FBI chief supports AG nominee as 'man of integrity'

Ex-director says he believes Holder would be politically independent.

Former FBI Director Louis Freeh Friday said he strongly backed Eric Holder for attorney general even though he believed the nominee allowed himself to be "used and co-opted" in going along with what Freeh called President Bill Clinton's "corrupt" 2001 pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.

Testifying on the second day of Holder's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Freeh praised Holder as a "man of integrity and the law" and said he had no doubt that the nominee would be politically independent in the post despite the "terrible mistake" he made as deputy attorney general in facilitating the pardoning of Rich, who fled to Switzerland after being indicted on fraud and weapons trafficking charges.

"I know Eric Holder would be able to say no to the president if that was needed," said Freeh, who described how he traveled to Switzerland as a New York-based assistant federal prosecutor to negotiate for Rich's extradition.

Senate Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter, R-Penn., Holder's chief critic on the panel, expressed incredulity that Freeh could endorse him after using such strong language to characterize the pardon and Holder's role in it. He tried to draw Freeh into a discussion of long-standing allegations that while he was serving as FBI director in the mid-1990s, top Justice Department and White House officials, possibly including Holder, pressured him to back off the FBI's investigations of Clinton's and Vice President Al Gore's fundraising. But Freeh declined to give credence to the charges.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has scheduled the panel's vote on Holder for Wednesday.

Freeh reiterated his disagreement with Holder's 1999 decision to release 16 imprisoned members of the Puerto Rican FALN terrorist group, but said it would be unfair to use it as an "index" to judge his integrity without taking into account his 26-year law-enforcement career. Another witness, Joseph Connor, whose father died in the 1975 FALN bombing of Fraunces Tavern in New York, castigated Holder for offering what he called the "unimaginable, immoral and dangerous clemency," and argued that this decision alone should disqualify him to be attorney general

Connor's view was seconded by Richard Hahn, a former FBI agent who told the committee that the now-defunct FALN was "no less terrorist than any of the terrorist organizations recognized today." In other testimony, Holder received another major boost from former Bush White House Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend. As evidence of his courage, she noted that as deputy attorney general during the investigation of the 1999 millenium terrorist plot, he made a "difficult and close call" that could have resulted in a criminal indictment under wiretap laws.