Attorney General Eric Holder used his Senate Judiciary Committee appearance today to push back against conservative critics on national security.
Without naming names, Holder refuted recent comments by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Mukasey’s close friend, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, both of whom have slammed Holder’s controversial decision to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court in New York.
“There are some who have said this decision means that we have reverted to a pre-9/11 mentality, or that we don’t realize this nation is at war,” Holder said in his opening remarks before a Justice Department oversight hearing. “I know that we are at war.”
The “pre-9/11 mentality” comment appeared aimed right at Mukasey, who was President George W. Bush’s last Attorney General, and who served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York in the mid 1970s with Giuliani.
Mukasey had earlier criticized the Obama administration for dropping use of the Bush-era “war on terror” phrase.
“Using soft, cushy euphemisms instead reflect they’re back in a pre-9-11 mentality,” Mukasey told the Washington Times. “In some ways it’s worse, because at least before [the attacks] we were not aware of what we were facing.”
And Giuliani said Wednesday that if Holder “truly believes we are at war,” he will reverse the decision to try KSM in civilian court and instead let the military try him. “It sends a signal to the terrorists that we are not taking this seriously, as we did before,” the 2008 Republican presidential candidate told reporters on a conference call arranged by the Republican National Committee.
Giuliani became famous for his leadership of New York through the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that brought down the World Trade Center. He became mayor in 1994, a year after followers of an Islamist leader with ties to Osama Bin Laden, the “blind sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman, had first tried to bring down the towers, using explosives.
NBC’s First Read political newsletter points out a perceived inconsistency in Giuliani’s statements over time. In 1994, the New York mayor praised a guilty verdict in the first WTC bombing trial as demonstrating that “New Yorkers won’t meet violence with violence, but with a far greater weapon — the law.”
For his part Mukasey has been on an op-ed spree in recent weeks, publishing arguments in favor of military commissions in the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
Holder on Wednesday said his critics who said courts can’t handle terrorism cases and that classified information wouldn’t be protected are spreading “misinformation.”
“Our courts have a long history of handling these cases, and no district has a longer history than the Southern District of New York in Manhattan,” Holder said. Among the high profile terrorism trials in New York was the 1994-95 trial of Abdel Rahman, who was convicted of plotting to blow up the United Nations and other New York City landmarks. Mukasey, then a federal judge, presided over the trial.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) cited Mukasey’s previous statements that he believed the Abdel Rahman trial had been bad for national security. The trial produced a public list of unindicted co-conspirators — including bin Laden — that may have tipped off the al-Qaeda leader he was wanted by the U.S. government, Mukasey has said.
Holder parried that prosecutors would have sought to keep the unindicted co-conspirator list classified and secret, if it had really compromised national security.
But one of the most interesting exchanges Wednesday came with a Democrat on the Senate panel. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis) asked Holder what he planned to do if a jury failed to convict KSM. ”Failure is not an option,” Holder said, adding that he’d spoken already to the prosecutors about it. “These are cases that have to be won. I don’t expect that we will have a contrary result.”
Replied Kohl: “Well, that’s an interesting point of view. Um, I’ll just leave it at that.”