A Hamstrung Eric Holder Blasts Critics of Civilian Trials


As Eric Holder announced today that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed won't be tried in federal civilian court, where the administration had originally hoped to see him prosecuted, the U.S. attorney general appeared clearly displeased with how the political fight had gone.

"Let me be clear: I stand by that decision today," Holder said of his original assessment, made in November 2009, that a federal courtroom in Lower Manhattan should see KSM and his four alleged 9/11 co-conspirators prosecuted by Justice Department lawyers.

What had changed?

Aside from the pressure applies by conservative politicians and the objections of New York's top Democratic lawmakers, the administration faces a new restriction barring Guantanamo detainees from entering the U.S.

Congress passed the restriction as part of its most recent Defense authorization bill in December, and President Obama signed it in January, announcing in a signing statement that he would work to repeal the restriction.

Holder today suggested that the administration no longer had a choice of where to hold the KSM trial: Repealing those restrictions would take time, and a trial needs to start soon. "We simply cannot allow a trial to be delayed any longer," Holder said.

He did not mention the more likely reality: That the White House might not be able to repeal the restriction at all, and must instead wait for next year's Defense Department funding bill.

KSM's trial location has become the largest political dispute of Holder's tenure as attorney general, and one of the bigger points of political disagreement between the Obama administration and Congress as a whole.

In that context, Holder took to the podium on Monday not only to announce the new decision -- that KSM will be tried in a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay -- but to blast those who criticized the notion of a federal, civilian trial.

"Those unwise and unwarranted restrictions undermine our counterterrorism efforts and could undermine our national security," Holder said of the ban imposed by Congress.

Congress, in essence, doesn't know what it's talking about, he went on to say.

Prosecutorial decisions such as this one "have always been and must always remain the responsibility of the executive branch. Members of Congress simply do not have access to the evidence and other information necessary to make prosecutorial judgments, yet they have taken one of the nation's most tested counterterrorism tools off the table and have tied our hands in ways that could have serious ramifications," Holder said.

His suggested approach endured the "unfair and unfounded criticisms" of "too many people, many of whom certainly should know better, many of whom certainly do know better," Holder said.

"Sadly, this case has been marked by needless controversy since the beginning, but despite all the arguments and debate that it has engendered, the prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators should never have been about settling ideological arguments or scoring political points," Holder said.

In other words: Shame on you.
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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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