If James Cole is confirmed as Deputy Attorney General, he will help lead the Justice Department’s national security team, which has struggled over how to prosecute terrorism defendants — in civilian courts or military tribunals.
Cole is not known as a terrorism expert, having spent most of his career as a white collar crime prosecutor or defense lawyer, but in an eight-year-old op-ed, he expressed confidence that the civilian criminal courts could adequately handle even the most extreme terrorist cases, including the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
That view may not sit well with some Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which begins hearings on Cole’s nomination on Tuesday. Some Republicans have advocated wide use of military proceedings to try terrorism suspects.
In a Sept. 9, 2002, opinion piece for Legal Times, Cole wrote:
[T]he attorney general is not a member of the military fighting a war — he is a prosecutor fighting crime. For all the rhetoric about war, the Sept. 11 attacks were criminal acts of terrorism against a civilian population, much like the terrorist acts of Timothy McVeigh in blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City, or of Omar Abdel-Rahman in the first effort to blow up the World Trade Center. The criminals responsible for these horrible acts were successfully tried and convicted under our criminal justice system, without the need for special procedures that altered traditional due process rights.
Our country has faced many forms of devastating crime, including the scourge of the drug trade, the reign of organized crime, and countless acts of rape, child abuse, and murder. The acts of Sept. 11 were horrible, but so are these other things.
Cole, writing at a time when John Ashcroft was Attorney General, added that “the attorney general justifies much of his agenda by pointing to the ‘war on terrorism’ and saying that it is an extreme situation that calls for extreme actions. But too much danger lies down the road. The protections built into our criminal justice system are there not merely to protect the guilty, but, more importantly, to protect the innocent. They must be applied to everyone to be effective. What are we fighting for if, in the name of protecting the principles that have raised this nation to the pinnacle of civilization, we abandon those very principles?”