The Obama administration is portraying guilty pleas entered Monday by an alleged Al Qaeda operative as evidence of how the criminal justice system can be used to combat terrorism.
“It could have been devastating,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at a press conference in Washington Monday. “This attempted attack on our homeland was real. It was in motion. And it would have been deadly.”
At a court hearing in Brooklyn Monday, Najibullah Zazi, 25, admitted that he traveled from Denver to New York to take part in a “martyrdom operation” aimed at avenging civilian deaths due to U.S. operations in Afghanistan. He also admitted to traveling to Pakistan to train for Al-Qaeda led suicide attacks.
“We are at war against a very dangerous, intelligent and adaptable enemy and we must use every weapon available to us in order to win that war. In this case as in so many others, the criminal justice system has proved to be a valuable tool,” Holder said. “We will continue to use it.”
Holder faulted Republicans for undervaluing the role of the civilian courts in pursuing terrorism cases and extracting useful intelligence from defendants through the use of plea agreements.
“To take this tool out of our hands to denigrate the use of this tool flies in the face of the facts, in the face of the history of the use of that tool and is more about politics than it is about facts,” he said.
There has been little criticism of the Justice Department’s handling of the Zazi case. However, after Nigerian Umar Abdulmutallab was charged with attempting to blow up a Northwest Airlines plan on Christmas Day, Republicans publicly attacked the administration for not putting the suspect into military custody.
GOP critics said the FBI’s 50-minute interrogation of the suspect, which was followed by him being read his Miranda rights, may have resulted in the loss of actionable intelligence, at least for a time.
The White House has countered that, with the aid of Abdulmutallab’s family, they won his trust and gathered information that more confrontational techniques might not have produced.
Holder said he has made no decision about where to hold a trial for alleged September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others accusing of plotting that attack. Last November, the attorney general announced plans to put the five on trial in Manhattan, but the administration retreated from that plan after political leaders in the city and the state turned against it.
“We need not make more of these people than they are. [They] are thugs. They are people who engaged in criminal warlike activities against the United States but they are people who are not different from people we have shown we have the ability to handle in the past,” Holder said.
The details of Zazi’s plea deal with the Justice Department are under seal. A prosecutor handling the case declined to say what the terms of the agreement are. Zazi faces a potential sentence of up to life in prison. Regardless of the plea deal, his sentence will be decided by a federal judge.