WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday defended plans to prosecute some terrorism suspects in traditional criminal courts, urging lawmakers to avoid politicizing the decision and inflaming public fears.
Holder has faced fierce criticism for planning to try the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a criminal court, with many calling for military trials for him and four alleged conspirators.
Faced with the prospect of Congress withholding funds for both the trials and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the White House has intervened and is now reconsidering the trial venue. However, that decision is weeks away.
Nonetheless, Holder defended criminal trials as a successful method for prosecuting terrorism suspects, noting that security at past trials has been tight with no incidents and they make it easier to get guilty pleas from suspects.
“They are tested ... they are secure, we have tried these cases in a safe manner,” Holder told a House Appropriations subcommittee. “Our allies around the world support us in bringing these cases in (criminal) courts.”
Republicans, and even some of President Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats, have demanded that the five men be prosecuted in revamped military trials, arguing that they should not receive full U.S. legal rights or be given a platform for their anti-American rhetoric.
“There is a very legitimate and robust conversation we should have about it,” Holder said. “But we cannot allow the politics of fear to drive us apart.”
Holder bristled at suggestions that the suspects would be “coddled” if afforded full U.S. legal rights, saying they would be treated “just like any other murderer.”
He also said that judges have prevented outbursts by terrorism suspects, pointing to the recent trial of a Pakistani woman in a New York court last month, during which the judge removed her repeatedly in response to her outbursts.
Still, Republicans on the subcommittee slammed the prospect of criminal court trials for terrorism suspects and clashed with Holder on whether full legal rights should be given to enemy combatants captured overseas.
“This is war and in a time of war we as a nation have never given constitutional rights to foreign nationals, enemy soldiers, certainly captured overseas,” said Representative John Culberson.
Seizing on the suggestion by Holder that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden would be treated similarly to mass murderer Charles Manson, Culberson argued that showed a disconnect between the administration and the American public.
Holder said that the Obama administration knew the United States was engaged in a war but said that it was vastly different than past wars and that even in military trials the defendants are given access to lawyers and other legal rights.
“I understand we are at war with al Qaeda,” Holder said, adding that the United States was unlikely to face the prospect of putting bin Laden on trial because he had indicated he would rather die fighting.
“We would be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden,” Holder said, referring to a criminal suspect’s right to remain silent and have an attorney present during questioning. “He will never appear in an American courtroom. That’s a reality.”
Later in the hearing, Holder tried to clarify his remarks, saying he frequently has heard that terrorism suspects are being given the rights equal to the average American.
“They are not treated as average Americans. They are treated as murderers,” he said.
Holder said a decision about where to prosecute Mohammed and the four alleged co-conspirators was likely weeks, but not months, away.
“Facts, facts, not fear, must be the basis of all of our discussions,” he said.
Editing by David Alexander and Eric Walsh