Attorney General Eric Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are urging Congress not to restrict the executive branch from prosecuting terrorism defendants in federal courts or in reformed military commissions in the United States.
The request Thursday in a joint letter to House leaders ratchets up the debate between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans on how best to proceed legally against accused terrorists.
Congressional restrictions on terrorism prosecutions would be unwise and set a dangerous precedent, Holder and Gates told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
"In order to protect the American people as effectively as possible, we must be in a position to use every lawful instrument of national power — including both courts and military commissions — to ensure that terrorists are brought to justice and can no longer threaten American lives," Holder and Gates added.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has proposed legislation that would prevent the Obama administration from putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and other terrorists on trial in federal civilian court in New York City or in other American communities. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined by about half the Senate's Republicans and a few Democrats, has made a similar proposal.
Holder and Gates said that "we have been unable to identify any precedent in the history of our nation in which Congress has intervened in such a manner to prohibit the prosecution of particular persons or crimes."
In the war on terror, "we ensure that all relevant factors are carefully considered" when determining whether the Justice Department should prosecute a case against alleged terrorists in civilian courts or whether the Defense Department should try them under the Military Commissions Act of 2009.
They said the exercise of prosecutorial discretion has always been and should remain an executive branch function.