By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009
After enduring four hours of hostile questions in a crowded Capitol Hill hearing room about his decision to send the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes to Manhattan for trial, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. submitted himself to one more round of interrogation Wednesday.
The nation's chief law enforcement officer pivoted from the senators who had challenged him all morning and stood to face unexpected queries from a gathering of family members who lost loved ones in the al-Qaeda attacks eight years ago.
In quiet yet persistent tones, Alice Hoagland of Los Gatos, Calif., told Holder that she took "great exception to your decision to give short shrift to military commissions."
"I can't help feeling that it does make New York City a much more dangerous place and a target," said Hoagland, who had pinned a white ribbon and a large button honoring her son Mark Bingham to her muted purple suit.
Bingham perished in a field near Shanksville, Pa., as one of four passengers credited with helping rush the cockpit of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93. "We are heartsick and weary of the endless machinations," his mother said.
Holder, who had reacted with flashes of steely irritation and amusement throughout the debate with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, ratcheted down his demeanor during a brief and respectful conversation with family members. More than a dozen friends and relatives had assembled in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Wednesday morning to watch the hearing. Before Holder's testimony began, GOP lawmakers introduced them. After it ended, they stayed behind to make their feelings known to the attorney general, several expressing their disagreement with his decision not to opt for military prosecutions.
Overall, views among the families and the survivors of the nearly 3,000 people who were killed in the attacks remain mixed. Several retired firefighters, widows and parents took to the airwaves last week and pledged support for the civilian trials. They expressed satisfaction that they could finally watch the efforts to secure justice on American soil.
Bringing the alleged plotters of the Sept. 11 hijackings to U.S. courtrooms was a difficult decision, Holder said Wednesday, and one that amounts to "the first step toward resolving" the legal legacy of the attacks. He assured Hoagland that he is confident of the evidence against Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators who have yet to be indicted on criminal charges that could carry the death penalty.
The encounter with grief-stricken relatives, however, punctuated an emotional debate that has only just begun and is likely to rage for years, through the eventual trials of Mohammed and other detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
For half a day, at least, a cavernous Senate basement room cluttered with dueling news releases formed the center of the action.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) uniformly praised the Obama Justice Department for "bringing justice to the murderers and the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks" and signaling that "we can rely on the American justice system."
But conservative opposition ran hot. While senior GOP lawmakers acknowledge that they lack the votes to prevent the administration from importing detainees for trial, they registered their concern in voices loud and impassioned.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a former military lawyer whose national security views win respect in the Obama White House, even though they do not always find agreement there, blasted the Justice Department for taking steps that he says will confuse military commanders and blur the lines between armed conflict and law enforcement.
He said that trying in civilian courts people who were captured on foreign battlefields will lead to confusion among military officials about the kinds of legal rights that detainees would have, such as the right to remain silent or to seek a lawyer.
"Can you give me a case where an enemy combatant caught on a battlefield was tried in civilian court? We're making history here, and we're making bad history," Graham said. "The big problem I have is that you're criminalizing the war. You're confusing the people fighting the war. . . . You're making a fundamental mistake here."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the committee, said, "I believe this decision is dangerous, I believe it's misguided, I believe it's unnecessary."
But Holder retorted that prosecuting Mohammed in federal court "does not represent some larger judgment about whether or not we are at war," nor an indication of what the Justice Department will do with other Guantanamo Bay detainees.
He also took issue with the argument that civilian courts cannot adequately protect classified information and intelligence-gathering methods. He noted that the revised procedures for military commissions closely follow the existing strategies in American criminal courts.
As the long morning trended toward afternoon, and Holder at last turned with his advisers and security detail to leave, Hoagland stayed to reflect on the encounter.
"I don't think he has changed his mind, and I haven't changed my mind," she said.