A little more than a year ago, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., testifying on Capitol Hill at a budget hearing, said it was highly unlikely U.S. forces would capture Osama bin Laden alive.
At the time, Holder was discussing the trial court rights of terror suspects. Bin Laden, the attorney general said then, would have the same legal rights as others who are put on trial in federal district court.
“The reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden,” Holder said at the House budget subcommittee in March 2010. “He will never appear in an American courtroom. That’s a reality.”
The next month, Holder retreated a bit, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee that the government’s hope was to glean intelligence from bin Laden—in the event he was not killed by U.S. forces or people close to him.
“With regard to Osama bin Laden, who is our target one for the United States, our plan is to capture him or to kill him,” Holder testified in April 2010. “Our hope would be to capture him and to interrogate him, to get useful intelligence from him about the structure of al Qaeda, about al Qaeda’s plans.”
Pressed about his earlier remark about reading Miranda rights to bin Laden’s corpse, Holder explained: “What I said was that with regard to that possibility, both in our attempt to capture him and from what we know about instructions that he has given to the people who surround him, his security forces, I think it is highly unlikely that he will be taken alive. But our goal is to either capture Osama bin Laden or to kill him.”
Holder is scheduled to appear this morning at a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing. The attorney general has not publicly commented on the death of bin Laden, killed in a U.S.-led raid at a compound in Pakistan.
In response to bin Laden’s killing, senior administration officials in recent days have explained that U.S. forces were prepared for “all contingencies.”
“If we had the opportunity to take bin Laden alive, if he didn’t present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that,” said John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism adviser told reporters. “We had discussed that extensively in a number of meetings in the White House and with the president. The concern was that bin Laden would oppose any type of capture operation. Indeed, he did. It was a firefight.”
Brennan said President Obama put a “premium” on making sure U.S. forces were safe. Bin Laden “was engaged and he was killed in the process. But if we had the opportunity to take him alive, we would have done that,” Brennan said.
Taking bin Laden alive would have presented a series of challenges for the government—including the designation of a prosecution venue. Holder recently lost his push to try alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in federal district court in Manhattan, opting instead for a military commission at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In February, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) asked CIA Director Leon Panetta at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing what the government would do with bin Laden were he captured alive.
“[W]e would probably move them quickly into military jurisdiction at Bagram for questioning and then eventually move them probably to Guantánamo,” Panetta responded.
Chambliss noted the government hasn’t moved anyone to Guantánamo in years. Still, Chambliss called Guantánamo the best and safest place from a national security standpoint.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said at the hearing in February that the capture of bin Laden and other alleged terrorist “luminaries,” as he called them, would trigger “interagency discussion on what their ultimate disposition would be.”
“Whether they would be tried or not that would—I am sure if we did capture them—be subject to some discussion,” Clapper said.