JIM LEHRER: The nation’s chief legal officer got a Senate grilling today over the war on terror. The issues ranged from the fate of al-Qaida’s leader and key terror suspects to the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The occasion was a Senate oversight hearing on the Justice Department. And, right from the start, Attorney General Eric Holder was on the defensive. Democrat Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin pressed Holder about his statement last month that Osama bin Laden would never be caught alive.
SEN. HERBERT KOHL, D-Wisc.: Mr. Holder, would you like to explain that comment and clarify what the administration has planned if and when, as we all hope, bin Laden is captured?
ERIC HOLDER, U.S. attorney general: What I said was that, with regard to that possibility, both in our attempts to capture him and from what we know about instructions that has given to the people who surround him, his security forces, I think it’s highly unlikely that he will be taken alive.
But our goal — our goal is to either capture Osama bin Laden or to kill him.
JIM LEHRER: Republicans then zeroed in on how to prosecute terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions charged, Holder had worked to undo the military commissions set up by the Bush administration.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, R-Ala.: It’s imperiled, I think, a lot of hard work and progress over years. As you know, I supported your nomination, but your actions have shaken my confidence in your leadership at the Department of Justice.
JIM LEHRER: Holder argued, the use of civilian courts to handle terror suspects is nothing new.
ERIC HOLDER: The Bush administration used the criminal justice system to interrogate, to prosecute, and to incarcerate terrorists, for the same reason that the Obama administration has. It is an extremely effective tool to ensure justice and to protect the security of the American people.
Now, let me be clear: This administration will use every tool available to it to fight terrorism — every tool. This includes both civilian courts and military commissions. Indeed, we have already referred six cases for prosecution in commissions. We will no doubt refer other cases as well.
JIM LEHRER: Last November, Holder announced 9/11 mastermind suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would be tried in federal criminal court in New York City. Earlier this year, local officials said that would be too costly and too great a security risk.
Holder said today New York, as well as other sites, are still under review. But New York Democrat Chuck Schumer asked him to look elsewhere.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER, D-N.Y.: The overwhelming consensus in New York, as you know, is that it shouldn’t be there. And I just strongly urge you to make sure that that doesn’t happen.
JIM LEHRER: Republicans, like Senator Sessions, said Guantanamo suspects shouldn’t be tried anywhere on the U.S. mainland.
SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: The American people are not interested in terrorists being brought from Guantanamo to their own communities. Reality is a stubborn thing. Pretending that terrorists can safely be treated as common — common criminals will not make it so.
JIM LEHRER: Republicans also questioned the handling of the Christmas Day airline bomb plot. The suspect was read his rights shortly after his arrest and referred to civilian courts.
Holder said he stood by that choice.
ERIC HOLDER: I think the decision that was made has been shown to be the right one, given the fact that we had the ability to get information from him in that one-hour interaction immediately after he was apprehended, and then the information that he has since provided as a result of his decision to — to cooperate with the federal government.
JIM LEHRER: Overall, Democrats defended the attorney general’s discretion to choose where and how to prosecute terror suspects.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California accused Republicans of playing politics.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif.: I think that the degree to which this dialogue has escalated is really very unhealthy. Democrats did not do to President Bush following 9/11 what is being done to this administration with respect to their decision-making. And I really regret it, and I really find it reprehensible.
I believe that the best interests of the people of this nation are served by the administration, you, Mr. Attorney General, and the president having maximum flexibility as to which venue these defendants should be tried.
JIM LEHRER: The decision to send some detainees to American courts had been part of the broader effort to shut down the military prison at Guantanamo.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina agreed today on the need for a new prison somewhere else, but he voiced concern about what happens in the meantime.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM,R-S.C.: We’re basically a nation without a viable jail. This president is probably not going to send new people to Guantanamo Bay. Is that a fairly accurate statement?
ERIC HOLDER: That is certainly something we would try to avoid.
JIM LEHRER: The original plan was to close Guantanamo last January. There is no new timetable.