WASHINGTON — Under fire from Republican critics, Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday the U.S. still aims to capture and interrogate Osama bin Laden, but expects the al-Qaida leader won’t be taken alive.
The attorney general was on the defensive from the outset in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, peppered with criticism over his handling of terrorism issues, including the planned shutdown of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and where those suspects should be sent for trial.
He said remarks he made last month that bin Laden would not face trial stemmed from reports that his security guards are under instructions not to let him be taken alive if cornered by U.S. forces.
Shortly after he made those comments in March, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said it remains the goal of U.S. troops to capture bin Laden alive and bring him to justice, suggesting that military and legal counterterrorism agencies are not on the same page.
Holder said the plan remains to take bin Laden alive if possible, even if there is little expectation that he will let himself become a prisoner.
“Our plan is to capture him or to kill him. Our hope would be to capture him and to get useful intelligence from him,” the attorney general said.
Republicans were quick to hammer Holder over concerns he is risking U.S. security by placing some terror suspects in the federal criminal court system.
Holder announced last November that the reputed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four accused co-conspirators would face trial in New York. The White House stopped that effort, and is now preparing to put those suspects before a military commission, as the Bush administration had originally planned.
Republicans have also maintained that a Nigerian, who is the alleged Dec. 25 airline bomb attempt suspect now awaiting trial in Detroit, should have been turned over to the U.S. military.
“Pretending that terrorists can safely be treated as common criminals will not make it so,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the committee.
Democrats were just as quick to defend Holder, saying Republicans were playing politics with terrorism in a way they had not when George W. Bush was president.
“I really find it reprehensible,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I have never seen anything quite like this,” she said. “The record is ignored. It doesn’t matter that the Bush administration brought 200 terrorists to justice” in federal courts.