By Susan Crabtree - 11/18/09 11:00 AM EST
Republicans senators plan to grill Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday about his pledge not to allow the release of dangerous detainees into the United States.
Holder’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee marks the first time senators have had a chance to question Holder publicly since the Department of Justice announced its decision to try five terrorist suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, in U.S. courts.
The GOP also is worried the move could allow detainees to be released in the U.S. on a technicality.
“[The administration’s Gitmo decision] was a result of unrealistic campaign promise,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Judiciary’s ranking member. “Now that he’s in office, [President Barack Obama is] staying with that view even though it’s an unsound decision.”
Holder promised detainees would not be released into the U.S. in a written response to a question posed by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). The answer was included in a 55-page document obtained by The Hill in which Holder responded to several senators in advance of Wednesday’s hearing.
“Where we have legal detention authority, as the president has stated, we will not release anyone into the United States if doing so would endanger our national security or the American people,” Holder wrote. “There are a number of tools at the government’s disposal to ensure that no such detainee is released into the United States, all of which are currently being reviewed by the Special Interagency Task Force on Detention Policy ... ”
Holder did not respond to any of Sessions’s written questions, according to the document obtained by The Hill.
Sessions, a former U.S. attorney whose nomination to a district court was held up in the Senate when he was 38, has been one of the biggest obstacles to moving Obama’s judicial nominees through the chamber. On Monday, Sessions made clear that Democrats would have to muster 60 votes to move at least some of those nominees through.
But Sessions said Obama and Holder shouldn’t hold anything against him, especially considering that Republicans have a better record in approving Obama’s nominees than Democrats did with President George W. Bush’s judicial appointments.
On the detainee issue, Republicans want to know how the administration can claim that the trials in civilian courts are a true test of the country’s judicial process if detainees will be held regardless of the trials’ outcome.
Holder repeatedly dodged that question in a Friday briefing with reporters following the Justice announcement. Instead, Holder 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.”
Separately, House Republicans are launching efforts to prevent the trials in civilian courts. Intelligence Committee ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) told The Hill he will file a discharge petition to force a vote on legislation sponsored by House GOP Leader John Boehner (Ohio) that is intended to block efforts to transfer detainees to the U.S.
The House would have to vote on the legislation if the discharge petition is signed by a majority of members.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) is also drafting legislation to require that suspected terrorists held at the Guantánamo detention center in Cuba be prosecuted in a military commission.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he plans to focus most of his questions in Wednesday’s hearing on the transfer of detainees to civilian courts.
“I like Eric Holder personally,” Hatch said, “but this is unjustified and just opens up all kinds of problems for our military and our courts.”
In a brief interview Tuesday, Kyl said he plans to ask Holder exactly what government tools the Justice Department has to prevent terrorist suspects from being released in the United States if they are found not guilty or if the trial is thrown out for procedural problems.
“That’s what we want to know — we want him to enumerate them,” Kyl said.
Kyl argues that U.S. civilian courts are not appropriate venues to handle international terrorism trials. During the trial of Omar Abdel Rahman, al Qaeda obtained valuable information about U.S. intelligence sources and methods, thereby making the job of fighting terrorists tougher, he said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was directly involved in writing military commission legislation to deal with the trials of terrorism suspects, also wants to know how the administration plans to hold detainees if they are found guilty or if their cases are thrown out.
“I’d be curious to know exactly what tools they are talking about,” he remarked.
McCain predicted that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial will become a “long, drawn-out” spectacle, which will be “far worse than a show trial.”
After Holder’s Friday announcement, Feinstein was notably absent from the flurry of Senate reaction.
When asked directly what she thought about Mohammed being transferred to New York for trial, Feinstein said she thought the city was “well-equipped to handle the trial of known terrorists.”
Molly K. Hooper contributed to this story.