While questions during Eric Holder’s confirmation hearings, which open on January 5, will inevitably probe his role in the pardoning of the billionaire fraudster Marc Rich in the final moments of the Clinton administration, it’s another issue that may be even more damaging: Holder’s involvement in the freeing of 16 members of a murderous Puerto Rican nationalist group in 1999 who were linked to bombs in Washington, New York, and Chicago.
The GOP senators aim to tarnish Obama’s sheen by focusing their fire on a single cabinet nominee. The most likely target is his pick for attorney general, according to an aide to a Republican senator on the judiciary committee.
The campaign against Holder could be "a kind of exhibit on Obama not getting it on terrorism," an aide to a Republican senator on the judiciary committee explained. "If you frame it properly, it's better than the Marc Rich stuff."
The senators will suggest that the Rich pardon shows Holder lacks the independence of mind needed to be a sound attorney general. But they will further allege that his role in freeing the Puerto Rican terrorists shows a fundamental failure to grasp the danger of terrorism
Already Senator Arlen Specter, the independent minded ranking Republican on the committee has ominously asked for a two week delay to the hearings, set for January 8. Specter noted that Holder's nominee questionnaire and FBI background check were not yet complete. "I am looking for a very constructive engagement to determine the qualifications of Mr. Holder," he said on the floor of the Senate.
While Holder’s role in the Rich pardon is embarrassing—he wrote a recommendation to Bill Clinton saying he was "neutral, leaning towards favorable" about a Rich pardon—his less well known advice to advocates of the Puerto Rican terrorists on how best to win a presidential pardon, will be presented as an unacceptable ambivalence towards terrorism at the heart of the new Obama administration.
The nationalist group known as FALN stands accused of planning more than 130 bombings that killed six people and wounded 70 between 1974 and 1983. They planted bombs in Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, targeting corporate headquarters, financial institutions, and military and government buildings, including New York's police headquarters.
Though the individuals pardoned by Clinton were imprisoned on conspiracy or firearms charges, and were not accused of directly causing any deaths, Attorney General Janet Reno warned that the group posed an "ongoing threat" to national security and that the release of its members would increase that threat. Three years before Holder issued his advice to Clinton, in 1996, the Justice Department recommended that clemency for the 16 FALN members be denied.
When Clinton pardoned the nationalists in 1999, his move was seen as an attempt to help Hillary Clinton win her New York senate bid by pandering to Hispanics.
The campaign against Holder could be "a kind of exhibit on Obama not getting it on terrorism," the aide to a Republican senator on the judiciary committee explained. "If you frame it properly, it's better than the Marc Rich stuff."
While Republicans concede it's unlikely Holder's confirmation can be denied, his nomination offers a rare chance to dent the aura of infallibility that has surrounded Obama since the Democrats' sweeping election victory last month. The president-elect hasn't been making the Republicans’ task easy. For the most part, his cabinet lineup has been well received both on Capitol Hill and in the country at large.
"Who are we kidding?" the aide said. “Besides Holder, the guy seems to get it. He has a good cabinet.”
The attempt to besmirch Holder’s reputation is important to boost Republicans’ flagging morale. "We need to get our people revved up a little bit,” the aide said. “We got our ass kicked on various levels."
The challenge to Republicans set on tackling Obama’s close and longstanding friend may mirror the difficulties they encountered when opposing Obama during the campaign. The two men share similar life stories: both were born to immigrant fathers, attended Columbia College, played basketball, and devoted themselves to public service.
They also share what Holder has described as the same "worldview" about race—aware of and proud of their own ancestry, but not defined by it. When two met for the first time at a dinner in 2004, Holder recalled, they "just clicked."
Despite their determination not to be defined by race, both men are notable for breaking racial barriers. That factor that will weigh on Republicans' minds if they direct their fire at Holder, who is the only African-American named to Obama's cabinet and the first ever to serve as attorney general. The GOP has the difficult task of attempting to undermine Holder's candidacy without being seen as opposing racial progress.
Republicans are already concerned about being seen as obstructionist, and their plans to undermine Obama could backfire if their efforts are linked to race politics.
It's possible—though improbable—that party leaders will instead focus on what one aide called "credibility problem" of Bill Richardson. "He kind of lied about whether he played pro baseball. Who does that?" the aide said. "He may be easy pickings, although I don't think he engenders rage on our side.”
The aide was referring to an embarrassing moment in 2005, when Richardson admitted he had never been drafted into the major leagues, despite claiming for four decades that he had received an offer to pitch for the Kansas City Athletics.
Richardson also had a cameo in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when the press discovered he had offered the infamous intern a job at the United Nations when he was ambassador there. Richardson denied that Clinton had ordered him to take her on. Other baggage might stem from his service as Energy Secretary, a tenure marred by accusations that Chinese spies had infiltrated U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories.
Before joining the Daily Beast, Ross Goldberg worked as a staff reporter on the New York Sun's city desk, where he covered courts as well as general assignments. In college, he served as managing editor of the Yale Daily News.