U.S. commander says bringing bin Laden to justice remains goal

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; 2:05 PM

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Wednesday that the military would "certainly" try to capture Osama bin Laden alive and "bring him to justice" -- contradicting remarks by a top Obama administration official.

Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress on Tuesday that bin Laden would never go on trial in the United States because the chances of him being caught alive were "infinitesimal." He predicted flatly that bin Laden would either be killed by U.S. forces or by al-Qaeda operatives determined to prevent him from falling into enemy hands.

On Wednesday, asked if the forces under his command had given up on trying to capture bin Laden alive, McChrystal said they had not.

"Wow. No. If Osama bin Laden comes inside Afghanistan," he told reporters by telephone from Kabul, "we would certainly go after trying to capture him alive and bring him to justice. I think that is something that is understood by everyone."

Bin Laden was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in November 1998 after al-Qaeda carried out bombings that year against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds of people. Ever since, however, U.S. officials in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations have debated what they would actually do with the al-Qaeda founder if he is ever caught.

Many U.S. officials, including Holder, have argued that the point is moot. Arresting bin Laden, they say, would be practically impossible because he has instructed his bodyguards to kill him if he is ever on the verge of capture. Moreover, they add, he is more likely to be killed in a U.S. airstrike, such as by a missile fired from one of the unmanned U.S. drones that regularly patrol northwestern Pakistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

"Let's deal with reality," Holder said Tuesday at a committee hearing in the U.S. House. "The reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden. He will never appear in an American courtroom."

Holder was fielding queries from Republicans about whether the Obama administration would seek to place captured al-Qaeda leaders on trial in civilian or military courts. His response: "The possibility of catching him alive is infinitesimal. He will be killed by us or he will be killed by his own people so he can't be captured by us."

Although many al-Qaeda military commanders have been killed in U.S. missile attacks in Pakistan, some key figures in the network's leadership have been captured alive. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, was arrested as he slept in a safe house in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in 2003.

Last month, Pakistani security forces arrested the Afghan Taliban's second-ranking commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, without a fight as he was traveling near Karachi.

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