In an acknowledgment that throws a wrench in Republican talking points, former Attorney General John Ashcroft said on Friday that the criminal justice system does, indeed, have a role to play in trying terrorist suspects.
In an interview with the Huffington Post at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the former Bush administration official said that there are "a variety of tools that ought to be available to an administration" in its efforts to curb terrorism and bring terrorists to justice.
Asked specifically about holding civilian trials for terrorists, he said such a venue "has use and utility."
When asked how to distinguish whether to use a military tribunal system or criminal courts for terrorist suspects, Ashcroft said: "It depends on the circumstances."
"Our priority should be a priority of preventing further terrorist attacks and to automatically allocate people from one system to another without understanding what best achieves that priority would in my judgment be less than optimal," he said.
Ashcroft did not specifically address the Obama administration's plans to place 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in a New York criminal court. (His handlers whisked him away before he could tackle the topic).
But his admission that the criminal justice system has a useful role to play in trying terrorist suspects puts him squarely at odds with many conservatives. Republican lawmakers have spent the past few months railing at Attorney General Eric Holder for placing KSM through the criminal system. They have repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for doing the same with the Christmas Day airline plotter.
Newly elected Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass) jabbed the president repeatedly for the move while campaigning for office: "Our tax dollars should go to weapons to defeat [terrorists] not lawyers to defend them," he said repeatedly.
The debate used to be far more nuanced within the GOP. Under the Bush administration there was a clear divide over those who insisted military tribunals were the way to go and those who felt the criminal justice system had and could try terrorists suspects. Indeed, under Ashcroft, the Bush Justice Department actually took pride in the number of terrorism-related convictions it was able to secure in criminal settings.