Nov. 18, 2009 -- The decision to try 9/11 suspects in a New York City federal court was a "tough call" but Americans should not doubt the ability of the U.S. judicial system to bring justice, Attorney General Eric Holder said today.
"We need not cower in the face of this enemy," he said. "Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is sturdy, our resolve is firm and our people are ready."
Holder's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee today directly addressed critics of his decision, some of whom suggest that the move signals a return to a pre-9/11 mind-set that considered terror suspects more like criminals than enemy combatants.
"Prosecuting the 9/11 defendants in federal court does not represent some larger judgment about whether or not we're at war," he said. "We are at war and we will use every instrument of national power -- civilian, military, law enforcement, intelligence, diplomatic and others -- to win."
Misinformation about procedures for terror trials in federal courts has clouded understanding of his decision, he said.
He cited the history of successful terrorism trials in U.S. courts, resulting in the conviction of more than 300 international and domestic terrorists now in U.S. prisons.
But several Republican senators took aim at Holder's claim that the choice of venue for the trials was based on where prosecutors would be most likely to obtain justice.
"You said the chances of success are enhanced [in federal courts]," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., "How can you be more likely to get a conviction in an article 3 court when Khalid Sheik Mohammed has asked to plead guilty before a military commission and be executed?"
"These trials do not hinge on the desire of Khalid Sheik Mohammed," Holder responded. "My job is to look at the possibilities. Khalid Sheik Mohammed is not making this decision."
Holder Critics Say Military Commissions Are Better Choice
But many critics say military commissions would be a better venue to try the alleged terrorists.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said Holder's decision sets a bad precedent and may cause confusion in how future terror suspects would be treated.
"We're making history and we're making bad history," he said. "If Osama bin Laden were captured, where would be tried?"
"We'd go through our protocol," Holder replied.
"But why wouldn't you do through the process where you brought Khalid Sheik Mohammed?" Graham followed.
"It would depend," Holder said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the committee's ranking Republican, called Holder's decision to bring the Gitmo suspects to U.S. soil a "dangerous," "misguided" and "unnecessary" one. "The U.S. court system was not designed to try unlawful enemy combatants," Sessions said. "These are not normal criminals."
Sessions and other Republican senators questioned whether classified materials can remain adequately protected during trial in a federal court. Some also insisted the trials would provide a public forum for the suspects to voice their views.
Holder disputed those arguments, saying Americans should not fear anything an alleged terrorist might say.
"I have every confidence that the presiding judge will ensure appropriate decorum," he said. "And, if [alleged 9/11 mastermind] Khalid Sheik Mohammed makes the same statements he made in his military commission proceedings, I have every confidence the nation and the world will see him for the coward he is.
"I'm not scared of what Khalid Sheik Mohammed will have to say at trial, and no one else needs to be either."
Holder announced plans Friday to try 10 of the 215 prisoners detained at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Five, including Mohammed, are to be transferred to New York City for trials in federal court. Another five will face military commissions.
Mixed Reaction To U.S. Trials For 9/11 Suspects
President Barack Obama, traveling in Asia Wednesday, echoed Holder's statements, saying the New York trials will bring justice.
"I think this notion that we have to be fearful that these terrorists possess some special powers that prevent us from presenting evidence against them, locking them up and exacting swift justice, I think that has been a fundamental mistake," Obama said in an interview with CNN.
Family members of 9/11 victims, in attendance at today's hearing, excoriated Holder and his decision.
Geraldine Davie, mother of Amy O'Doherty who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and died in World Trade Center One, attended the Moussaoui trial for its duration expressed her concern about moving Khalid Sheik Mohammed to the U.S. court system.
She recalled how Al Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui used the trial as a venue to air his hatred of America. "This was a mistake…[Holder said] failure is not an option... but is that a way to run the Justice Department?...It's a tragedy we'll have to live through this again."
Holder Expects Gitmo Closure in 2010
"We have made tremendous progress in closing Guantanamo," Holder told the Senate committee, although acknowledging that the Administration will likely not meet a self-imposed January deadline for shutting down the facility.
"Sometime this year we ought to be able to do that," he said.
The sticking point is what to do with the more than 200 men being held at the detention camp. Administration officials say 40 to 50 will be transferred to the United States to face prosecution in federal courts or military tribunals. About 100 will be transferred to other countries.
"The decisions for the remaining detainees are still pending approval," Holder said. "But we expect to have decisions for all detainees well before even the January 22nd deadline.
Holder Says Preliminary Ft. Hood 'Findings' By December 1
The attorney general told senators that federal investigators are actively participating in a review of the shootings at Ft. Hood and whether the tragedy could have been prevented.
He called it "disturbing" that there was an apparent interaction between Maj. Malik Nadal Hasan, the alleged gunman, and "other people."
Holder said the president has issued a November 30 deadline for the investigation to issue preliminary findings.
"I think that's an indication of how serious we take this and how quickly we want to try to get to the bottom of it," he said.