By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. assured Republican lawmakers yesterday that the Justice Department would not release any detainees whom he considered dangerous on U.S. soil.
Holder, appearing at his first oversight hearing since taking office three months ago, told members of the House Judiciary Committee that no final determinations had been made about how to handle 241 men being held at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "We're not going to do anything, anything that would put the American people at risk -- nothing," Holder said.
The fate of the detainees has become a topic of intensifying interest as the Obama administration's self-imposed deadline for closing the prison draws nearer. Officials have until January to shutter the facility, but federal judges hearing legal petitions from the men are growing weary of waiting for their release.
An administration official said last night that President Obama is expected to announce today that he intends to keep military commissions to try some detainees at Guantanamo Bay, but with greater legal protections for defendants. The administration will also seek a second suspension of legal proceedings at Guantanamo so it can refine the system, the official said. Obama had received a 120-day suspension from military judges in January.
The fate of 17 Chinese Muslims from the Uighur community being held at Guantanamo is a particularly controversial issue because a federal judge and the Bush administration determined that they should be released, but officials have been unable to find a home for them.
"Believe me, I know better than anybody the clock is ticking," Holder said.
Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, demanded that the Justice Department share information about the risks posed by the detainees before any of them are moved.
Holder also faced questions about whether he will prosecute CIA agents, Justice Department lawyers or Bush administration officials for their role in developing an interrogation program that critics assert violated international treaties and anti-torture statutes.
He made clear that CIA employees who conducted interrogations following advice from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel would not face criminal prosecutions. But he did not close the door on the possibility of other cases, saying, "We would allow the law and the facts to take us wherever that was appropriate, and so as . . . facts become more evident, those are the kinds of things that obviously would go into that determination."
Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) asked: "If detainees were tortured to death, is it possible that no one committed a crime?"
"If somebody were tortured to death," Holder replied, "clearly, a crime would have occurred."
In response to questions from Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Holder said an ethics report on the actions of three department lawyers who drafted memos supporting the harsh practices would be finished "in a matter of weeks."
The Obama administration has indicated a desire to move forward and focus on other issues with a less partisan tint, a sentiment that Holder highlighted anew yesterday, but he said that if Congress created a truth commission, the Justice Department would cooperate.
On another topic, Holder said the department was briefed recently by John Durham, a federal prosecutor from Connecticut who has been investigating for more than a year the 2005 destruction of CIA videotapes depicting harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects.
"He spoke to the deputy attorney general a couple of weeks ago, and he's still proceeding with his investigation," Holder said.
Newsweek magazine reported this month that a federal grand jury exploring the destruction of the tapes had been revived, and legal sources have since told The Washington Post that CIA lawyers and operations officials had been contacted and called to testify.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.