WASHINGTON -- Despite numerous setbacks over the past 2 1/2 years, Attorney General Eric Holder defiantly defended the civilian court system as a venue for trying high-profile terrorist suspects during a speech Thursday night.
In a keynote address at the American Constitution Society Convention, Holder reiterated his preference for the American criminal justice system over a military tribunal alternative, calling the former a tried and tested venue for prosecuting terrorism-related cases.
"I don't need to be told -- by anyone -- about the seriousness of the dangers we face," Holder said, according a copy of the speech which was provided in advance to The Huffington Post. He continued:
I begin each day with a briefing on the most urgent threats made against the United States in the preceding 24 hours. I know that -- in distant countries, and within our own borders -- there are people intent on, and actively plotting to, kill Americans.
For nearly as long as your organization has existed, our nation has been at war. And like every person in this room, like the President and those who serve this Administration, and like every Member of Congress, I am determined to defeat our enemies. I know we can, and I am certain we will. But victory and security will not come easily. And they won't come at all if we adhere to a rigid ideology, adopt a narrow methodology, or abandon our most effective terror-fighting weapon -- our Article Three court system.
This latest round of defense of civilian courts comes amid another flare-up between the Department of Justice and Republican leadership. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) recently demanded that the Obama administration send two suspected terrorists -- Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi Alwan -- to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, despite the White House's insistence on winding down use of the U.S. military facility there. The two men, who face 23-count indictments, are currently being held in a federal facility in Bowling Green, Ky. -– in McConnell's home state.
McConnell's demands came on the heels of an April setback for Holder on the terrorist trial front: Congress refused to provide funding for 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's civilian trial in New York City. Mohammed and four of his co-conspirators were transferred to Guantanamo and formally re-charged in military tribunal proceedings -– despite months of insistence from the administration that they were committed to a civilian court proceeding.
In his Thursday speech, Holder didn't mention McConnell by name. He did, however, address what he framed as an overreach of constitutional power by the current Congress, defending "the exclusive right of the Executive Branch to determine appropriate venues and mechanisms for all criminal trials."
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, whether it involves brutal terrorists or white collar criminals.
So long as I am privileged to serve as 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 out one indisputable fact, which has been proven repeatedly, during 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.
It's not just Holder's relationship with lawmakers on the Hill that has been strained during the first term in office. The Attorney General has also experienced his fair share of behind-the-scenes tension inside the Obama administration -- again over the legal handling of suspected terrorists -- including reported disputes with former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
The White House announced in March that military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay would resume for detainees facing terrorism charges, calling the trials an "important tool in combating international terrorists."