Five years ago, the debate over whether terrorists should be prosecuted in criminal courts was so contentious that it made its chief advocate, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., a political liability. Republicans argued that F.B.I. interrogation was not suited to wartime intelligence-gathering. By extension, civilian courtrooms were no place for terrorists, who did not deserve the same rights as common criminals. But as Mr. Holder prepares to leave office, his success in reversing the Bush administration's emphasis on trying terrorism suspects in secret prisons or at offshore military tribunals may be one of his most significant achievements. While he did not end the debate -- each new arrest brings fresh statements of disapproval from critics -- the Justice Department can now point to a string of courtroom victories that his liberal supporters, as well as many law enforcement officials, believe has reshaped the government's approach to prosecuting terrorism. "History will remember these years as the time when we resolved one of the most contentious debates in the post-9/11 era: about whether our legal system was equipped to handle national security cases," Mr. Holder said recently in a written response to questions about the issue.
Attorney General Eric Holder's legacy on progressive policy is often under-appreciated. As we talked about last month, the A.G. has shown real, consequential leadership, for example, on the issue of LGBT rights. He’s challenged Republican restrictions on voting rights. He’s fought for sentencing reforms. He’s condemned “Stand Your Ground” laws and showed effective leadership during the crisis in Ferguson. He cleared the way for Colorado and the state of Washington to pursue marijuana legalization. He’s worked to reverse the disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated.
But Matt Apuzzo this week highlighted an aspect of Holder's work that's every bit as important: shifting terrorism trials back to American courts.
The news peg, of course, is Ahmed Abu Khattala, the suspected terrorist accused of launching the 2012 Benghazi attack. The right demanded that the Obama administration deny Khattala a civilian trial and ship him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Holder ignored the Republicans' demands, and this week, Khattala was arraigned -- in open court, in a routine legal proceeding, just as the American justice system is supposed to operate.
This is one of the A.G.'s most important successes, and it's also one of the areas in which Republicans were completely wrong -- whether they're prepared to admit that or not.
Remember, when Holder started trying terrorist suspects in civilian U.S. courts -- the way nearly every president's administration has for all of American history -- the right was absolutely convinced this was a disaster of epic proportions. Such trials would not only create a national-security nightmare, Republicans said, but it would create a platform for lunatics to spread their twisted, hateful message. Worse still, conservatives insisted, are courts are so unprepared for these trials that acquittals would inevitable.
None of this turned out to be true. The American criminal-justice system is perfectly well equipped to indict, arraign, try, convict, and imprison terrorists. Republican predictions about our court system were about as accurate as their predictions about the Affordable Care Act.
Apuzzo's New York Times piece concluded with this quote from Holder: "We have shown, time and again, that upholding the rule of law is not inconsistent with safeguarding our national security. We have honed an approach to apprehending, questioning and convicting terrorism suspects that I think will serve as a blueprint for years to come."
That's not what his far-right detractors want to hear, but in the interest of justice, here's hoping Holder's prediction turns out to be true.