Sparring with critics at a hearing on Capitol Hill, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said today that he has yet to decide where the federal government will try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others accused of planning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"I think that we are weeks away from making that determination,” Holder told a House budget subcommittee that has authority over Justice Department funding. “I don’t think we’re talking about months. I think we’re talking about weeks away.”
In response to a separate question, Holder said that he still has the authority to determine the trial venue for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, in consultation with President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
The subcommittee’s hearing was Holder’s first appearance on Capitol Hill in months, and it comes after weeks of building criticism from Republicans about his decisions in national security cases, including his initial plan to try Mohammed in federal district court in New York. Holder will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 23 for a lengthy hearing.
Holder faced critical questioning today from GOP members, who asked about antiterrorism efforts and even Holder’s responsiveness to lawmakers. Pushing back, Holder at one point turned the tables and questioned one congressman.
In the sharpest exchange, Holder said that, if the government were to try Osama bin Laden in a civilian courtroom, then bin Laden would have rights equivalent to those granted a murder like Charles Manson. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) pounced on the statement, telling Holder, “You are clothing Osama bin Laden with the protections of the U.S. Constitution.”
Holder replied that he was speaking hypothetically, and he promised bin Laden’s head. “The reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden. He will never appear in an American courtroom. That’s a reality,” Holder said.
The two men interrupted each other, with Culberson accusing Holder of being out of touch with most Americans and Holder telling Culberson that “facts run into everything you’re saying.” Culberson’s time eventually ran out, and, during a second round of questioning, Holder declined to say what the government would do with bin Laden if it captured him alive.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who drew attention this month for comparing lawyers who represent detainees to lawyers who represent mobsters, told Holder that he’s not satisfied with the Justice Department’s responsiveness to lawmakers. Wolf said he’s had trouble getting the department to reply to his letters. “I haven’t had any answers, and I can’t get an answer out of your department,” Wolf said.
Holder replied that, as far as he knew, the department has answered each of Wolf’s questions.
Democrats on the subcommittee came to Holder’s defense, saying Holder is in a difficult position determining when to try suspects in civilian courts and when to try them in military commissions. “It’s all politics,” Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) said of the criticism, “and it’s so unfortunate that we have American citizens who have lost their lives, we have young men and women who are risking their lives, and that, here in the Congress, we can’t rise above our own politics.”