The top Republican in the House is vowing to prevent any trial of terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay from being held in New York City as leading Senate Republicans question Attorney General Eric Holder on the civilian status given to the Christmas Day bombing suspect.
House Minority Leader John Boehner said Wednesday the Obama administration doesn't have the votes to change the law to move detainees to U.S. territory for trial or to spend $500 million to refurbish the Thompson prison in Illinois to host the detainees who would be held there while awaiting trial in New York City.
"There is not going to be a trial in New York, I guarantee it. There is no appetite for the trials in Congress," Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
The leader added that any effort to do so will be used in the midterm election campaign.
"This is a big issue ... and a big issue we will campaign on this year," he added.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also said Wednesday that he'd be "very happy" if the administration moved the trials out of lower Manhattan. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Sept. 11 suspects should not be tried in civilian court, calling the idea of trying alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City "stunning."
The Justice Department pushed back, though, defending its ability to "safely and securely" handle such international terrorism cases in Manhattan.
"The Justice Department is confident that it can safely prosecute this case in the Southern District of New York while minimizing disruptions to the community to the greatest extent possible, consistent with security needs," spokesman Dean Boyd said in a statement.
Lawmakers pressured the department on the Sept. 11 trials as the leading Republicans on four Senate committees demanded answers from Holder on why alleged Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was given civilian defendant status and a reading of Miranda rights rather than being treated "as an intelligence resource to be thoroughly interrogated in order to obtain potentially life-saving information."
The letter, signed by McConnell as well as Intelligence Committee ranking member Kit Bond, homeland security committee vice chair Susan Collins, armed services panel ranking Republican John McCain and top GOPer on the Senate Judiciary Committee Jeff Sessions, asks who were the decision-makers to label Abdulmutallab a civilian criminal defendant and why the decision was made so quickly after he was in custody.
They also want to know whether the Obama administration has a policy for interrogating terrorists captured on American soil and why so little time was given to interrogating the man who had burns on his legs from carrying an explosive in his underwear on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
The senators asked why the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group was not involved in the questioning or whether it's operational at all despite a task force on interrogation and transfer policy having been formed a year ago.
But the Justice Department has defended itself against claims no one was in the loop on the decision to charge the bomber, saying the department informed President Obama's "national security team about its planned course of action."
The White House confirms a video conference took place with members of the NSC, but has not identified which aides were present. Questions also remain about the veracity of the claim the suspect was interrogated for 30 hours.
"That's one of the questions I have," Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday, adding, "The FBI did have an opportunity to interrogate Mr. Abdulmutallab, that they got intelligence -- useful and actionable intelligence -- that was then transmitted back to officials throughout the government. This was done by experienced FBI interrogators. And that's all I have on that."
Though Abdulmutallab has been charged as a civilian defendant, based on other terror cases of Al Qaeda operatives Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, Abdulmutallab can be remanded to Department of Defense custody as an "unprivileged enemy belligerent," said Sessions committee spokesman Stephen Miller.
The Supreme Court ruled in both cases that American citizens can be held as enemy combatants, as long as they are not held indefinitely and are provided due process rights. Padilla is now serving a sentence in federal prison while Hamdi was sent to Saudi Arabia and gave up his citizenship.
The court laid out even less restrictive rules on indefinitely detaining non-citizen enemy combatants, which Abdulmutallab fits, Miller said.
"The president has the authority to rescind Abdulmutallab's civilian status and have him transferred from DoJ to DoD custody and ... by doing so this will allow this government to gather further information in the course of a military interrogation to learn more about Al Qaeda activities in Yemen and beyond," Miller said.
"The administration made a severe mistake in reading (Miranda rights) to Abdulmutallab but the president has the opportunity to right that wrong," he added.
"Moreover, federal law now unquestionably provides authority for the detention and military prosecution of anyone who is a part of Al Qaeda," Miller said. "The law was amended by Sen. Sessions last summer during the debate over the annual defense authorization bill to make clear detainees who are 'part of Al Qaeda' are deemed 'unprivileged' enemy combatants under the law."
In their letter, the senators ask Holder first to "provide written answers to the questions above and; second, that you testify promptly before the appropriate committees of jurisdiction as to these questions and any lessons your department may have learned from this incident."
This is the second letter in just over a week from Sessions to Holder, who has not yet responded to the first one asking for an explanation of the department's decision to classify Abdulmuttalab as a civilian, according to Sessions' office.