‘I Know We Are At War’: AG Holder Defends His Decision to Try the 9-11 Conspirators in Federal Court

By Susan Jones | November 18, 2009 | 11:00 AM EST

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, and the committee's ranking Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama stand with Attorney General Eric Holder on Nov. 18, 2009, prior to Holder’s testimony before the committee. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CNSNews.com) - Attorney General Eric Holder, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, defended his decision to bring five 9-11 conspirators – including the alleged mastermind -- to New York to stand trial in federal civilian court.
“There was not a political component to my decision,” Holder told Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
Even before he answered a single question from the committee, Holder said he wanted to clear up “misinformation” surrounding his decision.
“I am a prosecutor,” Holder said. “As a prosecutor, my top priority was simply to select the venue where the government will have the greatest opportunity to present the strongest case.”
Holder told the committee he weighed every alternative: “And at the end of the day, it was clear to me that the venue in which we are most likely to obtain justice for the American people is in federal court.”
While the 9-11 suspects will be tried in New York, Holder has directed five men linked to the USS Cole attack to be tried by a military commission. Critics, including Sen. Jeff Sessions, say a military trial is the appropriate venue not only for the Cole attackers but also for the 9-11 conspirators.
Holder on Wednesday listed five areas of “misinformation” that have arisen since he announced his decision last Friday.
 “First, we know that we can prosecute terrorists in our federal courts safely and securely because we have been doing so for years,” he told the committee. 
Holder noted there are more than 300 convicted international and domestic terrorists in U.S. prison system, including those responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa. He said U.S. courts have a long history of safely and successfully handling such cases.
“Second, we can protect classified material during trial.” Holder said the Classified Information Procedures Act establishes “strict rules and procedures” for using classified information in trials, and it has been used in various terrorism cases.
“Third, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will have no more of a platform to spew his hateful ideology in federal court than he would have had in a military commission.” Holder noted that Mohammed – in appearing before military commissions last year – “declared the proceedings an inquisition, he condemned his own attorneys and our Constitution, and professed his desire to become a martyr.” While his rants were heavily covered by the media, “few complained at that time that his rants threatened the fabric of our democracy.” Holder said he has “every confidence” that the presiding judge will maintain “appropriate decorum” in the courtroom.
And if Mohammed does rant and rave, “I have every confidence that the nation and the world will see him for the coward he is. I’m not scared of what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has to say at trial, and no one else needs to be afraid, either,” Holder said.
“Fourth, there is nothing common – there is nothing common – about the treatment the alleged 9-11 conspirators will receive.” Holder said he expects prosecutors to seek “the ultimate and most uncommon penalty for these heinous crimes” – the death penalty.
“Finally, there are some who have said that the decision means that we have reverted to a pre-9-11 mentality, or that we don’t realize that this nation is at war.” Not true, Holder said: “I know that we are at war. I know that we are at war with a vicious enemy who targets our soldiers on the battlefield in Afghanistan and our civilians in the streets here at home.”
Holder said he has personally witnessed the devastation of war – when he recently accompanied President Obama to Dover Air Force Base to witness the return of soldiers killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan; and “in the faces of the families who have lost loved ones abroad”; and in the daily intelligence reports he views each day.
“We are at war – and we will use every instrument of national power – civilian, military, law enforcement, intelligence, diplomatic, and others -- to win,” Holder said. “We need not cower in the face of this enemy. Our institutions are strong; our infrastructure is sturdy; our resolve is firm; and our people are ready.”
Holder said “justice has been delayed” for eight years for the victims of the 9-11 attacks, and it has been delayed even longer for victims of the USS Cole attack.
“It is time – it is past time – to finally act,” he said. “By bringing prosecutions in both our courts and military commissions, by seeking the death penalty, by holding these terrorists responsible for their actions, we are finally taking ultimate steps toward justice. That’s why I made the decision.”
Holder said he’s confident that his decision to try the 9-11 conspirators in federal court in New York will not compromise the safety of the American people -- and it will ensure “the preservation of American values.” He said he also is confident that his decision will “withstand the judgment of history.”