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Senators Try To Pin Down Holder On Terrorism Trials

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Attorney General Eric Holder was in the hot seat on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, as a Senate panel bombarded him with questions about Guantanamo Bay, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and possible locations for the trials of the Sept. 11 terrorism suspects.

Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee that a decision on the venue hasn't been finalized, though Manhattan is still a possibility.

Five months ago, Holder announced that the Sept. 11 suspects — including alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators — would be moved from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to stand trial in New York City. He was hammered for the decision, and the White House scuttled the plan after N.Y. Mayor Michael Bloomberg complained about the exorbitant security costs associated with a trial and fearful residents expressed concerns that the trials would make the city a target yet again.

"It should be clear to everyone by now that there are many legal, national security and practical factors to be considered here," Holder said Wednesday.

Republicans repeatedly accused the attorney general of putting Americans at risk by trying to integrate terrorism suspects into the federal court system.

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"Pretending that terrorists can safely be treated as common criminals will not make it so," snapped Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee. Republicans want terrorism suspects tried by military commissions, rather than criminal courts.

But Holder said he wants to decide the appropriate venue on a case-by-case basis, with the goal of choosing a platform that would both be effective and protect the American people. Those decisions would hinge on concerns about what kinds of evidence would have to be admitted depending upon the forum and the impact of some evidence on the intelligence community and U.S. allies, he said.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein defended Holder's stance on trying terrorism suspects, chastising Republicans for making it into a political issue.

"I've served now on the Intelligence Committee for some 18 years, on this committee for over 17 years, and I have never seen anything quite like this," she said.

Feinstein said the Bush administration used the federal courts to bring "200 terrorists to justice" during a time when only three were convicted by military commissions.

The attorney general also stepped back from his comments last month that bin Laden wouldn't be tried for crimes against the U.S. because he wouldn't be taken alive. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said a day after Holder's remarks that the U.S. still plans to try to take bin Laden alive.

Holder said his comments were based on reports that bin Laden's security guards are under orders not to let their leader be captured. He also clarified that the U.S. would like to capture bin Laden and put him on trial but reiterated that it's unlikely the al-Qaida leader would allow himself to be taken alive.

"Our plan is to capture him or to kill him," Holder told the panel. "Our hope would be to capture him and to get useful intelligence from him."

Sessions contended the U.S. must have a policy that lays out how to handle bin Laden if he is caught — and whether he should be given Miranda warnings.

Holder maintained that there would be no reason to advise bin Laden of his rights because the al-Qaida leader has already made enough incriminating statements to ensure conviction.

At times, even Democrats seemed to pile on the attorney general. Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin tried to get Holder to say when the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba would be closed, but Holder threw part of the responsibility back on Congress, saying lawmakers must provide money for a replacement facility.

The Obama administration has suggested that Thomson Correctional Center in rural Illinois could house some of the Guantanamo Bay detainees. But Holder said Congress must provide the financial support to open an alternative site.