Republicans dismiss new Democratic argument for civilian terror trials

Republicans are hitting back against Democratic claims that a guilty plea from an al Qaeda operative in federal court is proof the criminal justice system is up to the task of prosecuting terrorism suspects.

Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday pointed to the trial of Najibullah Zazi, who pleaded guilty to planning an attack on New York’s subway, as evidence that civilian courts are an “invaluable tool” in fighting the war on terrorism. The comments were aimed at countering an onslaught of recent GOP criticism of administration decisions to try terrorism suspects in federal courts instead of military commissions.

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Republicans, however, remain steadfastly opposed to trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts and argued that the Zazi case has no bearing on other prospective terrorism prosecutions, because Zazi is a legal permanent resident of the United States, while most accused terrorists are citizens of other countries who are not entitled to the constitutional rights civilian trials afford.

Holder has continued to argue that civilian courts work even as other members of the Obama administration have struggled to resolve eroding Capitol Hill support on both sides of the aisle for trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks in a New York City federal court.

A Justice Department plan to try Mohammed in a Manhattan courtroom sank last month under pressure from Republicans and some Democrats on Capitol Hill. Obama administration officials are trying to find a new venue for the high-profile prosecutions but have yet to announce their plans.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) brushed aside Holder’s assertions that the Zazi case demonstrates the ability of federal courts to handle terrorism trials.

"I think that terrorists ought to be treated like terrorists, not like common criminals,” Boehner told reporters Tuesday.

Others vocal opponents of trying terrorism suspects in civilian courts said the administration was comparing apples to oranges in using the Zazi case as an example of a successful federal court prosecution.

“The attorney general claims that the plea of Zazi is proof that federal courts can handle the trials of terrorists currently held at Guantanamo Bay,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). “But comparing the prosecution of Zazi — a legal permanent resident of the U.S. — to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — who engaged in an act of war against the U.S. by plotting the mass murder of Americans on 9/11 — is misleading at best.”

By transporting suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. for prosecution, Smith argued, the Obama administration is granting detainees broad constitutional rights they otherwise do not possess. Zazi already had these rights as a legal resident of the U.S. apprehended within the U.S.

“The American people are overwhelmingly opposed to bringing Gitmo detainees to the U.S. for trial,” Smith continued. “Americans do not owe KSM and the 9/11 conspirators any more rights or freedoms than they are being afforded at Guantanamo Bay. They are enemies of America, not American citizens or legal residents. They should be tried as enemies in military commissions at Gitmo.”

Other prominent Democrats echoed Holder’s assertion that Zazi’s guilty plea is another example of the capacity of civilian courts to handle terrorism cases.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, applauded FBI agents, state and local law enforcement officers and prosecutors for their work on the case.

“I continue to have full confidence in the ability of our federal prosecutors, law enforcement agents and courts to bring terrorists to justice,” he said. “We need not cower in fear but should act with conviction and confidence in countering terrorists. [Zazi’s] guilty plea is just the latest example of justice being served by using our counterterrorism tools and the experience of our criminal justice system.”

Zazi, an Afghan immigrant residing legally in the United States, admitted to traveling to an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan in August 2008 to receive weapons training so he could fight alongside the Taliban. But jihadists there instructed him and two other recruits to focus their efforts on a suicide attack on the U.S. mainland.

Zazi, 25, returned to Colorado in January 2009 with a recipe for mixing explosive materials. He then bought large volumes of beauty supplies containing hydrogen peroxide to make TATP, the explosive ingredient involved in the 2005 bombings of London’s subway system. In September last year, Zazi drove a rented car to New York but was stopped by teams of FBI agents and police on a bridge into Manhattan.

Zazi and others had planned an attack on New York City’s subways on Sept. 14, 15 or 16 but decided not to go forward with their plans after they realized they were under surveillance, according to Holder.

In recent weeks, Democrats have begun jumping onto Republican bills in the House and Senate that would bar any funds from being spent to try the alleged Sept. 11 plotters in civilian court, an attempt to force the administration to try the detainees before military commissions.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who is in a tight race for reelection, is co-sponsoring a bill along with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) that would prevent any money from being spent to move Sept. 11 terrorism suspects to the U.S. for civilian trials.

In the House, a similar measure pushed by Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in recent weeks has attracted the support of three Democrats: Dan Boren (Okla.), Jason Altmire (Pa.) and Mike McMahon (N.Y.).


— Molly K. Hooper contributed to this article.