US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] Thursday defended his plans to prosecute terror suspects in federal civilian courts, responding to harsh criticism from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) [official website] urging two Iraqi-born terror suspects in Kentucky be sent to the Guantanamo Bay military detention facility. Holder gave an address at the American Constitution Society [official website] national convention saying, "our most effective terror fighting weapon [is] our Article III court system." Holder criticized what he called "fear-mongering" from members of Congress who have suggested that trying terror suspects in civilian courts harm the US's national security.
Politics has no place—no place—in the impartial and effective administration of justice. Decisions about how, where, and when to prosecute must be made by prosecutors, not politicians. And this is true for every case. ... So long as I am privileged to serve as the attorney general, I will defend the exclusive right of the executive branch to determine appropriate venues and mechanisms for all criminal trials. And I will continue to point—one indisputable fact, which has been proven repeatedly by this administration and the previous one, in disrupting potential attacks and effectively interrogating, prosecuting, and incarcerating terrorists, there is quite simply, no more powerful tool than our civilian court system.
Earlier this week, McConnell made a speech on the Senate floor arguing to move terror suspects Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi from Kentucky to Guantanamo. He said:
The administration likes to tout its confidence in the US legal system. Well, I don't believe the American people need to try enemy combatants in our towns and cities to prove that our court system works. Prosecution is important. But let's be clear: prosecution is not our ultimate goal in this war. Our goal is to capture or kill those who want to kill us here and abroad and who are plotting even now—as this case clearly proves—to wreak havoc on our troops overseas. This is very simple: those we capture should be interrogated and, if necessary, indefinitely detained and tried in a military setting. Through these interrogations additional intelligence can be derived that leads to additional targets thereby weakening Al Qaeda and other associated terror groups at a moment when they are vulnerable.
Holder has consistently advocated [JURIST report] that terror suspects should be tried in civilian courts though has not found support from Congress. In April, Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [BBC profile; JURIST news archive] and four other co-conspirators will be tried before a military commission [JURIST report] for their roles in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Holder, who wanted the accused be tried before a federal civilian court [JURIST report], referred the cases to the Department of Defense (DOD) [official website] after Congress imposed a series of restrictions [JURIST report] barring the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the US. Holder refused to delay the trial any longer for the sake of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and their families, explaining that the restrictions are not likely to be repealed in the immediate future. The Obama administration changed its position despite repeated appeals from rights groups to utilize civilian courts over military commissions for the trials of suspected terrorists. However, international pressure to use civilian courts remains. Last March, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism Martin Scheinin [official website] called on the Obama administration to hold civilian trials [JURIST report] for Mohammed and other suspected terrorists saying that the military commissions system is fatally flawed and cannot be reformed.