Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.'s latest appearance on Capitol Hill was another chance for lawmakers to debate the use of federal courts to try suspected terrorists, even as Holder touted the operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden on Sunday.
Holder was asked today during a House Judiciary Committee hearing whether he would have favored using a civilian court to try bin Laden if the al-Qaeda leader had been taken alive. He declined to give an answer.
“That’s a hypothetical. I’m not sure it’s particularly relevant,” Holder said in response to a question from Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.).
Lungren, cutting in, argued it is relevant. He noted Holder’s support for a civilian trial for accused 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a proposal that Congress effectively ruled out in December when it prohibited detainee transfers from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
“I think it’s fair to ask, since you opposed a military trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whether you would have opposed a military trial for Osama bin Laden,” Lungren said.
Again declining to answer, Holder said that his position on military tribunals has often been mischaracterized. He noted that, on the same day in November 2009 that he announced a civilian trial for Mohammed, he announced that five other detainees would get military trials.
“I think our military commissions, especially since they’ve been modified, are constitutional and can give fair trials,” he said.
Holder also pushed back against another line of questioning from Lungren, about whether information provided by detainees who underwent “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding contributed to finding bin Laden. Holder said there was “a mosaic of sources” of intelligence, and he did not go into details.
In an opening statement at the start of the hearing, Holder applauded the government employees, including prosecutors and investigators, who have spent years tracking down bin Laden. He said the effort to kill or capture the terrorist leader has been a central focus of the administration.
“For the president’s national security team, achieving this goal has been at the forefront of our work, even as we continued — and strengthened — broader efforts to dismantle and defeat terrorist networks, and to use every tool available to combat national security threats both at home and abroad,” Holder said.