Under fire from Republican critics, Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday the U.S. still aims to capture and interrogate Osama bin Laden, but expects the al-Qaeda leader who ordered the September 11 attacks won't be taken alive.
The attorney general was on the defensive from the outset in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, peppered with criticism over his handling of terrorism issues, including the planned shutdown of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and where those suspects should be sent for trial.
The Obama administration has argued its policies are more effective in fighting terrorists than those of the Bush administration; Republicans charge that the Democrats are treating terrorists lightly by not subjecting more of them to military trials.
Holder said remarks he made last month that bin Laden wouldn't face trial stemmed from reports that his security guards are under instructions not to let him be taken alive if cornered by U.S. forces.
Shortly after he made those comments in March, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said it remains the goal of U.S. troops to capture bin Laden alive and bring him to justice, suggesting that military and legal counterterrorism agencies are not on the same page.
Holder said the plan remains to take bin Laden alive if possible, even if there is little expectation that he will let himself become a prisoner.
"Our plan is to capture him or to kill him. Our hope would be to capture him and to get useful intelligence from him," the attorney general said.
Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin was unsuccessful in trying to pin Holder down on when the Guantanamo prison would be closed.
Holder said that depends in part on Congress to provide money to build another facility. An alternative prison is currently planned for Illinois.
"We have to have an option, and that will require congressional support" for the new prison, he said.
Holder did get some public support from a longtime critic, Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Graham has taken on an important negotiating role with the White House on terror issues, and said at Wednesday's hearing that he supports putting some terror suspects on trial in federal courts.
The senator got Holder to admit that the administration does not want to send any more terror suspects to Guantanamo. That presents a potential problem in how to deal with terrorists captured overseas.
"We are basically a nation without a viable jail," said Graham.
Holder said he wants to work with Congress on a new prison, which Graham called "music to my ears."
While the two stressed the areas where they agreed, Graham is so far the lone Republican willing to deal with the administration. It is less certain whether the administration can strike any deal on terror policies that has enough votes to pass Congress, particularly in an election year.
Republicans repeatedly hammered Holder over concerns he is risking U.S. security by placing some terror suspects in the federal criminal court system.
"Pretending that terrorists can safely be treated as common criminals will not make it so," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, senior Republican on the committee.
Holder announced last November that reputed Sept. 11 attack mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four accused co-conspirators would face trial in New York. The White House stopped that effort, and is now preparing to put those suspects before a military commission, as the Bush administration had originally planned.
Democrats were just as quick to defend Holder, saying Republicans were playing politics with terrorism in a way they had not when George W. Bush was president.
"I have never seen anything quite like this," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "The record is ignored. It doesn't matter that the Bush administration brought 200 terrorists to justice" in federal courts.