NPR logo AG Eric Holder Faces 9/11 Families In Shining Example Of Democracy

AG Eric Holder Faces 9/11 Families In Shining Example Of Democracy

In a profile of courage, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke after a Senate hearing with 9/11 families critical of his decision to give some Guantanamo detainees a civilian trial. hide caption

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It was an unusual moment following a Senate hearing.

After being grilled for about four hours, mainly but not exclusively, by Republican senators critical of his decision to put five Guantanamo detainees and terrorist suspects on trial, Attorney General Eric Holder didn't bold from the hearing room immediately, as many a cabinet secretary might have.

Instead, the lanky and soft-spoken Justice Department head lingered to talk with family members of 9/11 victims who expressed their dismay and upset, though politely, with his decision to send Khalid Sheik Muhammad, the self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind, and four other detainees to New York City for trial.

In Washington, someone like the attorney general is always on stage, particularly when he's at the center of a political controversy like the current one. So an experienced prosecutor, judge and federal bureaucrat like Holder knew enough to talk to those family members and to not duck them or their questions.

Still, even though it was obviously the right thing to do, if only from a public relations standpoint, to stay and talk with the survivors as C-Span's cameras captured the scene, public officials don't always do what's right in such situations.

For a public officials who's made a tough decision to stand and face the music is the essence of democracy. The video of Holder explaining his decision should be required viewing for all those who aspire to public office.

A partial transcript of Holder's exchange with Alice Hoagland whose son was a passenger on Flight 93 on 9/11 follows:

HOAGLAND: I lost my son on Flight 93.

HOLDER: I'm so sorry.

HOAGLAND: I have great respect for you and your office. But I have to say I take great exception to your decision to give short shrift to the military commissions and put the five most heinous criminals and war criminals into court in New York City. I can't help feeling that it does make New York City a much more dangerous place and a target. And it will give these ugly people like Khalid Sheik Muhammad and Ramzi Bin Alshib especially very eloquent access to all of the media sources of the United States. And for those two reasons alone I would oppose this. That's not even to mention the fact there's been a tremendous delay now. As you know, on Dec. 8th when I was down in Guantanamo I heard Khalid Sheik Muhammad encouraging his buddies there and they did in fact plead guilty. And did want to be executed. And then withdrew their pleas because they wanted because it was possible execution would not be available to them because they had plead guilty. You are very conversant with the law,I am not. But I think I can speak for many of the 9/11 families when I say we are heartsick with the delays and machinations and I am afraid that the theatrics are going to take over at this point and I very much regret that.

HOLDER: Well, think of this though. For how long have these cases been pending? I've been atty general now for 8 or 9 months and we've taken the first steps towards resolving these matters. We are going to go through a process. They will undoubtedly try to do things in court as they did in the military commissions. I mean they did things there.

HOAGLAND: There were 26 members of the defense team as opposed to six members of the prosecution team.

HOLDER: They'll do that stuff. Judges can handle it. We've gote experience there. But I think what we have done is put in motion a process that finally, finally resolve these matters and done so in a relatively short time, given this administration is only 10 months old and I'm attorney general for only nine months, whatever it is. I respect the concerns that you have raised. These are issues I certainly considered. I did not give short shrift to military commissions. This was a tough decision. This was a tough decision.