By Susan Crabtree - 11/13/09 09:31 PM EST
Attorney General Eric Holder has pledged not to allow the release of dangerous detainees in the United States if they are found not guilty in federal court or if their case is thrown out on a technicality.
Holder made the assurances in a written response to a question posed by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) obtained by The Hill. The 55-page document provided answers to questions from several senators on the Judiciary Committee in advance of a Wednesday oversight hearing on Justice Department policies and practices.
Holder repeatedly dodged that question in a Friday briefing with reporters regarding the announcement that 10 of Guantanamo’s most high-profile terrorist suspects would be tried in U.S. courts. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM, the self-described mastermind of the attacks, along with four suspected accomplices now held at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, will be tried in a civilian court in Manhattan, Holder said.
When asked how the administration could assure family members of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the suspects would not be let go or exonerated on a technicality and be set free, Holder did not respond directly. Instead, he expressed confidence that the prosecutions would be successful.
“I've looked at the evidence. I've considered the problems that these cases present. And I am quite confident that we're going to be successful in the prosecution efforts,” he told reporters.
“If I was concerned about the forum not leading to a positive result or if I had a concern -- a different concern, you know, we would perhaps be in a different place,” he continued. “But the reality is -- and I want to be as assuring as I can -- that based on all of my experience and based on all of the recommendations and the great work and the research that has been done, that I am quite confident that the outcomes in these cases will be successful ones.”
Several Republicans immediately denounced the White House decision to transfer the detainees to U.S. soil for trial.
“The White House’s decision today to bring the 9/11 plotters within our borders and into our communities instead of trying them at the secure detention facility at Guantanamo is a step backwards for the security of our country and puts Americans unnecessarily at risk,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Kyl specifically criticized the decision to try KSM in New York federal court.
“It’s an unnecessary risk to bring the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks to downtown Manhattan,” he said.
Kyl also argued that U.S. civilian courts are not appropriate venues to handle international terrorism trials. During the trial of Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the "Blind Sheik," he said, al-Qaeda obtained valuable information about U.S. intelligence sources and methods, thereby making the job of fighting terrorists tougher.
The two GOP senators directly involved in writing military commission legislation to deal with the trials of terrorism suspects reacted differently to the Obama administration’s announcement.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was “extremely disappointed.”
“Today’s decision sends a mixed message about America’s resolve in the fight against terrorism,” he said. “We are at war, and we must bring terrorists to justice in a manner consistent with the horrific acts of war they have committed.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Judiciary Committee member and military lawyer, is keeping his powder dry for now. In a statement issued by his office Friday afternoon, Graham said Obama had asked him to withhold comment for now, which he has agreed to do.
“The decision on the proper venue to try Guantanamo detainees, particularly the 9/11 conspirators, is one of the most important decisions we will ever make in the War on Terror,” Graham said. “I have had and continue to have very strong feelings on this subject. Those feelings are well-known as evidenced by our debate on the floor of the Senate last week.”
“I have been asked by the White House to withhold comment about today’s Guantanamo decision until I can meet face-to-face with the President after he returns from Asia,” he added. “As our Commander in Chief, I will honor his request. I look forward to discussing this issue further.”
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), hailed the decision to transfer the terrorism suspects to U.S. soil for trial in civilian courts.
“I have always believed that the nation’s federal courts are capable of trying high-profile terrorism and national security cases,” said Leahy. “They have proven time and time again to be up to the job… I hope these cases will move forward promptly. By trying them in our federal courts, we demonstrate to the world that the most powerful nation on earth also trusts its judicial system – a system respected around the world.”
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) also applauded the announcement, calling it long overdue.
“…Our system of justice is more than capable of securely, fairly, and effectively prosecuting alleged terrorists,” said Feingold.
During Friday’s briefing, Holder said the decision to transfer 10 detainees to U.S. soil for trial was a sign of progress in the White House effort to close Guantanamo Bay, but he stressed that the administration was still a long way from meeting its goal of closing the prison early next year.
“I think it’s going to be difficult to close the facility by Jan. 22, and one of those things that is most problematic … is finding places where they can be safely placed, both for the nation that will host them and for American citizens,” Holder said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans are sure to grill Holder about any more progress the administration has made on plans to close the facility at Wednesday’s hearing. Senate Judiciary Committee aides are poring over Holder’s 55-page written response in preparation for Wednesday's hearing, which will be Holder’s first public interrogation since Friday’s announcement.
In Holder’s written responses to senators’ questions, he was far less forthcoming when asked about whether the country’s prisons could accommodate Guantanamo Bay detainees.
“We are currently examining a number of different options for housing Guantanamo detainees,” he wrote. “We can assure you that we will not move any detainees into the United States unless and until we are convinced that the detainees will be held safely and securely in a facility that satisfied all of our security concerns.”
In one question to Holder, Kyl asked Holder to provide the names of all the terrorists currently held in federal prisons and the details of their crimes and referred to comments Obama made in a May 21 speech at the National Archives, when he said: “Our federal ‘supermax’ prisons…hold hundreds of convicted terrorists.”
Federal BOP regulation bars him from disclosing a list of inmates, Holder wrote.
“However, the Department can provide you with briefings about terrorism suspects housed in federal prisons generally and about the types of crimes committed by those prisoners,” Holder responded.
Kyl followed up by asking whether the crimes committed by current federal prisoners are comparable to those of “high-value detainees” at Guantanamo.
“A number of individuals with a history of, or nexus to, international or domestic terrorism are currently being held in federal prisons, each of whom was tried and convicted in a [civilian court],” Holder responded, adding that he considers “all crimes of terrorism to be serious.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), there are 15 high-security prisons with a total rated capacity of 13,448 inmates under Justice Department control. The current inmate population of these facilities is 19,772, as of Nov. 5.
“At present time, our high-security facilities are overcrowded by approximately 7,000 inmates,” Felicia Ponce, a BOP public affairs specialist wrote in an e-mailed response to a question.
There is only one “Supermax” prison, which is located in Florence, Colo. That facility houses 468 inmates, 34 of which have a “history of or nexus to international terrorism,” and is currently at maximum capacity.
“Throughout the Bureau of Prisons, we currently house 216 inmates with a history of or nexus to international terrorism and 124 inmates with a history of or nexus to domestic terrorism,” Ponce wrote.