Gates, Holder oppose limiting decisions on where executive may try terrorists

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Attorney General Eric Holder are imploring House leaders to oppose any measures aimed at restricting the administration’s ability to try alleged terrorists in federal court or reformed military commissions.

Gates and Holder sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday expressing their joint opposition to any legislation limiting the administration’s ability to determine whether to try detainees in civilian or military courts.

“The exercise of prosecutorial discretion has always been and should remain an executive branch function,” they wrote. “We believe it would be unwise and would set a dangerous precedent for Congress to restrict the discretion of our departments to carry out specific terrorism prosecutions.”

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They also argued that members of Congress trying to prevent the administration from trying suspected terrorists in federal court are wading into unchartered legislative territory.

“…We have been unable to identify any precedent in the history of our nation in which Congress has intervened in such a manner to prohibit the prosecution of particular persons or crimes,” they wrote.

The inclusion of Gates, a Republican who previously served as defense secretary under President Bush, on the letter demonstrates the administration’s growing concern about legislation barring any money from being sent to try Guantanamo Bay detainees in civilian courts. Republicans will have a tougher time dismissing the opinions of one of their own when pursuing bills designed to restrict detainee trials to military courts.

Holder has faced scathing GOP criticism in recent weeks for his handling of the Christmas Day bombing attempt and decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in a Manhattan federal court. President Barack Obama has since reversed that decision and is currently looking for an alternative site.

In the last week, Republicans were frustrated again by Holder’s admission that nine Obama appointees in the Justice Department have represented or advocated for alleged terrorists.

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.) has attracted the support of three Democrats: Dan Boren (Okla.), Jason Altmire (Pa.) and Mike McMahon (N.Y.).

House Democrats on Tuesday night rejected several GOP amendments to the intelligence authorization bill that would have prevented the transfer of detainees to U.S. soil for trial in civilian court.