Page 2 of 2   <      

Eric Holder's Guantanamo Bay morass

"Sometime this month?"

"I'm not sure we can do that."

Cardin laughed. "This is an issue that is difficult for us to defend, when we don't have anything to defend," he pleaded. "We don't have a policy to defend. So I just urge you to get that to us as quickly as possible."

By giving the Democrats no ammunition with which to defend him, Holder had little help in answering the GOP assaults. "Your actions have shaken my confidence in your leadership," the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), told him.

Holder looked at Sessions as if considering an interesting point, scratching his ear and stroking his chin. But he wouldn't rule out doing what irked Sessions most: proceeding with a civilian trial of Mohammed in Manhattan.

Legal merits aside, trying the terrorist leader in New York would be a political disaster -- something everybody seems to grasp but Holder. "The overwhelming consensus in New York, as you know, is that it shouldn't be there," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told Holder. "I just strongly urge you to make sure that that doesn't happen."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), though attempting to defend Holder against what she called "reprehensible" Republican attacks, felt it necessary to tell him that "I understand why New Yorkers feel the way they do."

Had Holder not announced plans to send Mohammed to New York, the administration may well have been able to work out a deal in Congress by now to close Gitmo. Instead, the process has come to a halt as Republicans, furious about the trial, block funds to open an Illinois prison that could house detainees.

The stalemate left Holder with no answer to Democrats' pleas for action. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) asked the attorney general for "an update on your timeline" for closing Gitmo.

"As quickly as we can," Holder punted.

"Does that mean it might be this year? Next year? The following year? The year after that?"

Again, Holder wouldn't say.

One committee Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), offered Holder a key that would release him from his Gitmo confinement: Give up on plans to try Mohammed in civilian courts and work with Congress to sort out which terrorism prisoners will be tried in federal courts in the future. "I am one senator on the Republican side who has not objected to [civilian] courts being used in a flexible, pragmatic, aggressive fashion," he said.

"I want to also associate myself with Senator Graham's remarks," seconded Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

But Holder was not entirely sure he wanted to associate himself with Graham's proposal. When Graham asked Holder why he thought public attitudes had turned against closing Guantanamo Bay, Holder blamed his critics. "I honestly think that there's been a lot of misinformation," he said. "I think there's been unnecessary politicization."

"Can I give you an alternative theory?" Graham inquired. "I think there's a lot of people in this country worried we don't have a coherent policy."

Surprisingly, Holder agreed. "I think that it's incumbent upon people like myself to be more forthcoming, perhaps more clear with the American people about what our intentions are," he acknowledged.

The prisoner was beginning to find his way to freedom.

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company