By Susan Crabtree - 04/14/10 12:17 PM EDT
Attorney General Eric Holder won some much-needed support from a key
Republican on Wednesday after enduring months of criticism about his
decisions on detaining and prosecuting accused terrorists.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has often taken issue with the administration’s national-security decisions, commended several aspects of Holder’s terrorism policies as well as his willingness to work with Congress to close the Guantánamo Bay prison and clarify murky areas of laws governing the holding and trial of detainees.
Specifically, he agreed with Graham about the need for a viable new prison to house newly captured terrorism suspects and for reforming detainees’ habeas petition rights, especially in cases in which the administration has deemed terrorists unsuitable for prosecution and too dangerous for release.
“We have to come up with options and work with the Congress and develop what those options will be,” Holder said when asked where the administration was planning to house newly captured detainees now that Guantánamo Bay is slated for closure.
“This is music to my ears,” Graham replied.
Holder’s newfound cooperation with Congress could help alleviate the political damage some of his decisions — including trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a Manhattan courtroom, a decision since withdrawn — have inflicted on him and the administration.
Holder has endured rumors over his job for the past few months, and for a time appeared to have replaced Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner as the Cabinet member most likely on the way out.
At one point after the dustup over Holder’s decision to have Miranda rights read to the Christmas Day bomber, Holder was under daily fire from Republican opponents, including Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), who called for his resignation.
Holder is still coming under pressure. He endured criticism during the Wednesday Senate Judiciary Committee hearing from ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
Separately, Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) called for Holder to be removed from the decisionmaking process involved in selecting a forum for the trials of detainees.
King was upset with Holder’s comments, offered at the hearing, that New York City isn’t “off the table” as a site for trials.
The administration still has a long way to go in resolving many of the most vexing terrorism legalities, Holder conceded Wednesday.
He said he was already working with Graham to address what to do with the remaining 48 detainees at Guantánamo Bay who cannot be prosecuted or released and how best to provide transparency to the American public and in international diplomatic circles about those decisions.
“That is something we are still working on,” Holder said. “In terms of these 48 people, there is a right for them to challenge [their] determination in federal court. There has to be an ongoing review mechanism put in place … frankly, we’re working with Sen. Graham on that as well and that is something we should be able to share in a relatively short period of time.”
Graham also urged Holder to keep in mind that the country is fighting a war “where the whole world is the battlefield” and that the U.S. government should not be criminalizing the war but should remain “flexible, pragmatic and aggressive.”
The administration remains weeks from making a decision about where to try Mohammed. It still intends to close Guantánamo as soon as possible, but cannot transfer detainees until it has Congress’s support for a budget request to upgrade a prison at Thomson, Ill.
Illinois politicians, as well as several key Republicans, oppose any transfer and say they have the votes to prevent any funding for the Illinois facility.
Holder also recognized that there are legal questions surrounding the transfer of the detainees to U.S. soil and whether that automatically guarantees the prisoners constitutional legal rights.
“That is a question that I think has not really been answered yet — one that we’re not sure about,” he acknowledged. “As an advocate, I would argue that there are not other rights [provided upon transfer], but it’s not clear what the courts are going to rule.”
Holder sought to clarify his controversial remark last month that Osama bin Laden would be killed, not captured. Gen. Stanley McChrystal subsequently said the real military goal was to capture and interrogate bin Laden.
Holder said the goal is to capture and interrogate bin Laden, but there is a better chance he would be killed than captured alive.
The softer stance and willingness to cooperate with Congress may help Holder with Congress, though it didn’t prevent him from enduring a scolding Wednesday from Sessions, who excoriated Holder’s national-security policies and decisions, saying they have “shaken his confidence” in Holder’s leadership at Justice.
He rapped Holder for allowing the White House to announce that New York was being reconsidered as a venue for the trial, arguing that the Justice Department should make those decisions. He also asked Holder to continue reconsidering the use of civilian courts to try detainees.
“The simple and more logical decision would be to try this case in a military commission,” Sessions said, adding that doing so would ensure the protection of classified information.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), as well as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), came to Holder’s defense, with Feinstein accusing his critics of trying to attack him personally to undermine his standing within the administration.
“I think the degree to which this dialogue has escalated has been very unhealthy,” she said. “You, Mr. Attorney General, and the president should have the maximum flexibility on which venue these defendants should be tried.
“I have come to the conclusion that a lot of these attacks are to diminish you,” she added. “I don’t think you should buy into that — stay strong.”