Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Capitol Hill on Thursday to defend the Obama Administration’s terrorism policies, but he arrived lacking one key piece of rhetorical ammunition: an explanation of how and where the alleged plotters of the September 11 attacks will put on trial.
“No final decision has been made about the forum in which Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants will be tried,” Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Holder’s initial decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men in federal court in Manhattan was jettisoned by the White House after an outcry from local officials, some of whom were initially supportive of the move. On Thursday, the attorney general made no predictions about whether the case would be sent to a military commission.
“As I’ve said from the outset, this is a very close call. It should be clear to everyone by now that there are many legal, national security and practical factors to be considered here,” Holder said.
The attorney general insisted Thursday that it was still possible the trial could be held in New York and he suggested it could take place somewhere other than Manhattan.
“New York is not off the table as a place where they might be tried but we have to take into account the concerns that have been raised by local officials and by the community,” Holder said. “The Southern District of New York is a much larger place than simply Manhattan.”
While many Republicans have been urging that the case be moved to a military commission, Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said the White House had no business being involved in the decisions about where to try the 9/11 suspects.
“It makes me a bit uneasy, having served in the department, to have politicians discussing where these cases ought to be tried,” Sessions told Holder.
“This is a trial that is unique in the sense that it does involve very real national security concerns,” Holder said. “I think the involvement of the national security component of the White House, as well as the national security team, makes sense.”
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) asked Holder about his statement more than a month ago that decision on the 9/11 trial would be forthcoming within weeks and got a similar answer.
“We expect we will be in a position to make that decision in a number of weeks,” Holder repeated.
As the hearing opened, it was clear Holder could expect a highly skeptical reaction from committee Republicans. “Your actions have shaken my confidence in your leadership at the Department of Justice,” Sessions declared. “The course you’ve chosen on national security is steering us into a head-on collision with reality….The American people are not interested in terrorists being brought from Guantanamo to their own communities.”
Sessions also challenged the administration’s decision to read Miranda rights to suspect Umar AbdulMutallab when soon after he was arrested in December for allegedly attempting to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight outside Detroit. “There can be no doubt that treating terrorists as ordinary criminals will reduce our access to intelligence,” the senator said.
Holder deflected the questions about the handling of AbdulMutallab by claiming that he has provided very helpful intelligence to authorities. “It is not just invaluable. It has been actionable,” the attorney general said. “I think the decision that was made has been shown to be the right one.”
Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was absent from Thursday’s hearing due to a funeral in his home state. The hearing was delayed for a couple of weeks at the request of Republicans and postponed again last month due to a conflict with the White House signing ceremony for the health care reform bill.