Attorney General Eric Holder has just sent a letter responding to the concerns of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been critical of the administration's handling of the alleged underwear bomber, Umar Abulmutallab. In the letter, Holder repeats the claims made by other administration officials about Abdulmutallab's providing intelligence.
Holder writes that Abdulmutallab was "questioned by experienced counterterrorism agents from the FBI in the hours immediately after the failed bombing attempt and provided intelligence, and more recently, he has provided additional intelligence to the FBI that we are actively using to help protect our country."
Holder also remarks on the decision to try Abdulmutallab in civilian court:
[T]he practice of the U.S. government, followed by prior and current Administrations without a single exception, has been to arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who are apprehended inside the United States.
Holder adds, "In keeping with this policy, the Bush Administration used the criminal justice
system to convict more than 300 individuals on terrorism-related charges," citing several convicted terrorists, referring to shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui by name.
Holder also responds to criticism that Abdulmutallab wasn't put in military detention. Republicans have been trying to use Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair's testimony before the Senate a few weeks ago to argue the decision about how to deal with Abdulmutallab wasn't made in consultation with intelligence and military officials, but here Holder says the opposite is true. "No agency supported the use of law of war detention for Abdulmutallab," writes Holder, "and no agency has since advised the Department of Justice that an alternative course of action should have been, or should now be, pursued."
As to whether or not Abdulmutallab should have been allowed access to counsel, Holder offers a doozy:
Some have argued that had Abdulmutallab been declared an enemy combatant, the government could have held him indefinitely without providing him access to an attorney. But the government's legal authority to do so is far from clear. In fact, when the Bush administration attempted to deny Jose Padilla access to an attorney, a federal judge in New York rejected that position, ruling that Padilla must be allowed to meet with his lawyer. Notably, the judge in that case was Michael Mukasey, my predecessor as Attorney General. In fact, there is no court-approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorists captured inside the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney; nor is there any known mechanism to persuade an uncooperative individual to talk to the government that has been proven more effective than the criminal justice system.
Earlier today, McConnell vowed to block funding for civilian trials of terrorism suspects. I doubt Holder's letter will change his mind, although I hope it will convince reporters covering this story to include the relevant context and precedent. The Republican outrage over how the underwear bomber has been handled is a matter of selective, fraudulent outrage on behalf of a party uninterested in anything other than political gamesmanship.
Although it has to be read with the caveat that this administration's policies are not completely in line with the law, Holder writes that, "President Obama has made clear repeatedly, we are at war against a dangerous, intelligent, and adaptable enemy. Our goal in this war, as in all others, is to win."
"Victory," Holder explains, "means defeating the enemy without damaging the fundamental principles on which our nation was founded."
-- A. Serwer