By Susan Crabtree - 03/26/10 05:10 PM EDT
The Justice Department has responded to GOP demands for details about terrorism cases brought in civilian court and the number of convicted terrorists held in U.S. prisons.
The U.S. has convicted 403 people in international terrorism cases since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to documents Justice released Friday.
Republicans had intended to grill Attorney General Eric Holder about terrorism prosecutions at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing originally scheduled for earlier this week. That hearing was canceled so senators could attend the White House signing of the healthcare bill and rescheduled for April 14.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ronald Weich on Friday sent the top Democrat and Republican on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees copies of an updated National Security Division report and chart containing statistics about convictions that have occurred since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
More than two dozen of the convictions are the result of violations of federal statutes directly related to international terrorism while the remaining convictions involve an identified link to international terrorism.
Examples of high-profile convictions include that of 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, Jose Padilla, who was convicted of aiding terrorists overseas, and David Coleman Headley, who pleaded guilty to a dozen federal terrorism charges, including planning the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, as well as an attack on a Danish newspaper.
In a letter accompanying the report, Weich explained that the convictions include more than 400 defendants, many of whom were prosecuted in civilian courts under the George W. Bush administration.
Weich also made the point that career prosecutors at Justice initially developed and have since maintained the information.
Weich also noted that the Bush administration cited the data on “repeated occasions,” including in a book titled Preserving Life & Liberty: The Record of the U.S. Department of Justice 2001-2005, released in February 2005.
“Altogether, the department has brought charges against 375 individuals in terrorism-related investigations, and has convicted 195 to date,” Weich quoted from a passage in the book.
In the Justice Department’s 2009 budget request, submitted in February 2008, the Bush administration trumpeted 319 convictions or guilty pleas in terrorism or terrorism-related cases since Sept. 11, 2001, Weich noted.
Republicans seized on the details of the cases, arguing that most of them did not involve prosecutions of high-value foreign terrorists or enemy combatants.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said the information provided confirms Republicans suspicions and further erodes Attorney General Eric Holder’s argument for trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in civilian court.
“The information provided today confirms what Republicans have been saying all along — and removes perhaps the last remaining pillar underneath the Attorney General’s collapsing argument for the civilian trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed,” Sessions said in a statement.
The vast majority of the terrorism cases cited by Holder are not comparable to KSM’s case, Sessions continued, because most of the convictions contained in Justice’s list are for far lesser crimes, such as document fraud and immigration violations. Sessions said only a “small handful concern conduct even remotely similar to a mass casualty terrorist attack.”
Other cases cited such as Moussaoui’s, Republicans argued, were fraught with procedural problems, delays, appeals and risks to classified evidence. One holdout juror even spared Moussaoui the death penalty. The bulk of the convictions were for acts committed by U.S. citizens and were completed before military commissions became fully operational in 2008.
Sessions also insisted that the convictions undermine Holder’s reasons for trying the Christmas Day bomber in civilian court because two of the terrorists on the list were placed in military custody because the civilian justice system limits the government’s ability to gather intelligence.
“It is simply disingenuous for the Attorney General to argue that these cases demonstrate that captured enemy combatants, as classified under the 2009 Military Commissions Act, are better tried in civilian rather than military court,” Sessions added.
The war of words over the number of civilian convictions dates back to February 2009, when Attorney General Eric Holder first asserted that the Bush administration used civilian courts to convict more than 300 individuals on terrorism-related charges.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, last May wrote Holder seeking detailed information supporting Holder’s claims. At the time, Kyl argued that “a comparison of terrorists in federal prisons to terrorists detained at Guantanamo is instructive only if the severity of their actions and their backgrounds and allegiances are equivalent.”
After Holder announced plans to try KSM and other suspected 9/11 plotters in civilian court last fall, Sessions (R-Ala.) again asked Holder for the names and details of the roughly 300 suspects prosecuted in civilian court during Bush’s time in office. Holder promised to provide them, but Sessions and other members of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees did not receive them until Friday.
Sessions, Kyl and other GOP critics of the administration’s anti-terrorism policies suspect that the administration is defining terrorism-related cases so broadly that it is including minor cases, such as prosecutions for “false statements, financial fraud and immigration fraud.”
Before Holder’s November testimony to the Judiciary Committee, Kyl had asked for the names of all people convicted on terrorism charges serving time in U.S. prisons. In his Friday letter, Weich said the Bureau of Prisons does not publicly share information about which inmates are being held for terrorism-related crimes for security reasons but said the Bureau “is prepared” to provide the committees access to the information “under conditions designed to protect security and operational equities.”
This story was updated at 6:05 p.m.