Attorney General: 'We need not cower in the face of this enemy'

Attorney General: 'We need not cower in the face of this enemy'

Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one The Memo: Democrats may rue pursuit of Bannon Ben Affleck, Tracee Ellis Ross join anti-gerrymandering fundraiser with Clinton, Holder MORE on Wednesday vigorously defended his decision to try five terrorist suspects in civilian courts, arguing New York City is the venue “most likely to obtain justice for the American people.”

Holder vowed that the U.S. would not surrender to fear or politics in seeking justice in federal court for the alleged Sept. 11 plotters.


“We need not cower in the face of this enemy,” Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a packed hearing. “Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is sturdy, our resolve is firm and our people are ready.”

Holder’s testimony marks the first time senators have had a chance to question him publicly since the Department of Justice last week announced it would try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and four other suspects now held at Guantánamo Bay.

The decision was seen as a key turning point for the prison camp, which President Barack Obama had vowed to close by Jan. 22. Obama in several interviews on Wednesday acknowledged that deadline would not be met, though Holder testified that he expected the facility to be closed sometime next year.

Republicans on the panel grilled Holder over the decision, which they said could allow a detainee to be released on a technicality within the U.S.

Several Republicans have also argued the trials will hand terrorism suspects the high-profile public attention they crave and make Manhattan a bigger target for terrorism.

“We are making bad history here,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Biden move to tap oil reserves draws GOP pushback MORE (R-S.C.), a military lawyer and primary author of legislation creating military commissions to try detainees. He said Holder was jeopardizing national security by determining that wartime combatants, potentially even Osama bin Laden, could be given constitutional legal protections usually provided only to U.S. citizens and foreigners convicted of regular crimes, not acts of war.

“The big problem I have is that you’re criminalizing the war … I think you’ve made a fundamental mistake here,” Graham said.

Holder delivered a point-by-point rebuttal to his critics. The defendants could be tried in either military or civilian court, he said, because the Sept. 11 attacks were both an act of war and a violation of federal criminal law.

He defended the record of civilian courts in handling international and domestic terrorists, and argued Mohammed would have no more of a platform to “spew his hateful ideology” in a civilian court in Manhattan than he has already done in a pre-trial hearings in the military courts.

“I’m not scared of what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has to say at trial, and no one else needs to be afraid either,” Holder said, adding that he was certain that judges could maintain courtroom decorum.

In several tense exchanges, Holder insisted he is not doing anything that would undermine military and intelligence officers working to prevent another terrorist attack and to win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also tried to dispel “misinformation” he said had surfaced since Friday’s announcement.

“I know that we are at war,” Holder said in his opening statement and repeated in subsequent remarks.

“I know that we are at war with a vicious enemy who targets our soldiers on the battlefield in Afghanistan and our civilians on the streets here at home.

“I have personally witnessed that somber fact in the faces of the families who have lost loved ones abroad, and I have seen it in the daily intelligence stream I review each day. Those who suggest otherwise are simply wrong,” Holder said.

He said he would use every “instrument of our national power” to bring justice to those responsible for terrorist attacks. One of the main reasons to try Mohammed and the other four suspects in civilian courts, he said, was to finally achieve justice for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

“No more delays,” he said. “It is time — it is past time — to act.”

Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: For Trump endorsement: The more sordid, the better Those predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold MORE (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Judiciary panel, invited four family members of Sept. 11 victims to the hearing and introduced them by name in his opening remarks. He accused the administration of returning to a “pre-9/11 mentality” in making a series of national security decisions, including trying Mohammed and four others in civilian courts.

“On Sept. 11, 2001, our nation was attacked by a savage gang of terrorists whose intent was to kill innocent Americans and bring ruin to the United States,” Sessions said. “The devastation they caused in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon was an act of war.”

Sessions said he feared that “time has dulled the memories” of those who support the administration’s decision to transfer the detainees to the U.S. for trial.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyBiden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans The Hill's Morning Report - Ins and outs: Powell renominated at Fed, Parnell drops Senate bid On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure MORE (D-Vt.) repeatedly defended Holder. He cited letters from survivors of the Sept. 11 attacks and prominent military officials, such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who support trying the suspects in civilian courts.

“They committed murder in the United States, and we’ll seek justice here in the United States and will prosecute them in our country,” Leahy said. “We’re the most powerful nation on earth and we have a justice system that is the envy of the world. We are not afraid. We will go forward and prosecute them.”

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinWhat's that you smell in the Supreme Court? New variant raises questions about air travel mandates Progressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign MORE (D-Calif.), who chairs the Intelligence panel and sits on Judiciary, said she “fully” supports Holder’s decision.

“I happen to believe that our federal courts are our finest, our federal judges the best,” she said. “In my service on the Intelligence Committee, I’ve watched the failure of the military commissions for seven years to reach conclusions. Only three cases have been tried.”

After the hearing, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the Intelligence panel, blasted Holder for dismissing concerns that the justice system could preclude interrogations of Osama bin Laden if he were captured.

Under Graham’s questioning, Holder refused to say whether bin Laden would be given Miranda warnings upon capture, simply claiming that “the case against him is so overwhelming” that there would be no need for any statements he might make after capture.

“It’s stunning that the attorney general seems to have no interest in obtaining valuable intelligence from bin Laden, who as the leader of al Qaeda clearly has considerable knowledge of the network, its members, methods and potential plots to kill more Americans,” Bond said in a statement.

This story was updated at 9:00 p.m.