White House raps McConnell over civilian terror trial criticism

White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that the intelligence community disagreed with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) assessment that trying the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden in federal court posed a threat to national security.

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"With all due respect to Senator McConnell, that's not the assessment of the intelligence community," Earnest said Friday. "It's not the assessment of the Department of Justice. It's not the assessment of the Department of Defense. So he's certainly welcome to his opinion, but that's not the assessment of the people who are responsible for protecting the national security of the United States of America."

In a statement Friday, McConnell warned that the decision to try Sulaiman Abu Ghaith in civilian court could damage intelligence gathering prospects.

"The decision of the President to import Sulaiman Abu Ghaith into the United States solely for civilian prosecution makes little sense, and reveals, yet again, a stubborn refusal to avoid holding additional terrorists at the secure facility at Guantanamo Bay despite the circumstances," McConnell said. "Abu Ghaith has sworn to kill Americans, and he likely may possesses information that could prevent harm to America and its allies. He is an enemy combatant and should be held in military custody."

Abu Ghaith pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges of involvement in a conspiracy to kill Americans. The al Qaeda spokesman, who appeared in propaganda videos for the terror group, was arrested overseas last month and brought by the Obama administration secretly to the U.S.

Republicans have objected to the White House's decision to try Abu Ghaith in federal court in Manhattan rather than at a military tribunal, arguing a military tribunal would provide more opportunity to interrogate the accused terrorist.

"The Obama administration’s lack of a war-time detention policy for foreign members of al Qaeda, as well as its refusal to detain and interrogate these individuals at Guantanamo, makes our nation less safe," Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said in a joint written statement. “We are at war with Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups, and America’s detention policy must reflect that reality." 

But on Friday, Earnest said there was "broad consensus" among intelligence and military officials within the administration that civilian court was the best option.

"Here is a pretty strong track record of the success of Article 3 courts in handling these kinds of trials. Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, was tried in an Article 3 court. He's currently serving a life sentence," Earnest said.

Earnest added that the administration remained confident that intelligence could be extracted from Abu Ghaith despite his civilian trial.

"I should also point out that there have been previous detainees who have been subject to similar questioning and similar circumstances that has yielded valuable intelligence," Earnest said.