WASHINGTON — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Thursday night strongly defended plans to keep two accused terrorists in the United States to stand trial in federal court.
His position puts him at odds with Kentucky politicians and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who want the two Iraqi-born Bowling Green residents to be moved to a detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams, in a statement released Wednesday night, announced his agreement with McConnell.
"These terrorists have plotted against our soldiers and therefore deserve to be tried in a military court," Williams said.
"Furthermore, Kentucky taxpayers would be responsible for the terrific financial costs associated with a trial."
His Democratic opponent in the November election, Gov. Steve Beshear, said in response to Williams: "I am fine with the federal government sending them to Guantánamo Bay. My main concern is to get them out of Kentucky."
Brian Wilkerson, a spokesman for House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Stumbo also supports moving the suspects to Guantánamo.
But Holder, in a speech at the American Constitution Society convention, was sharply critical of "some in Congress" who "claim that utilizing our civilian court system — as we have for more than 200 years — would somehow jeopardize public safety."
He did not specifically mention McConnell, who had said earlier in the day: "Send them to Guantánamo where they belong. Get these terrorists out of the civilian system — and out of our back yards. And give them the justice they deserve."
McConnell had said earlier in the week that Kentucky could face retaliatory attacks if the suspects are held in the state.
McConnell will be in Bowling Green on Friday to discuss the situation with local officials. Waad Ramadan Alwan, 30, and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, 23, were arrested there earlier this month on charges of plotting to send arms to their home country to be used against U.S. troops. They pleaded not guilty and could face life in prison if convicted in federal court.
Holder said there is no more powerful tool than the civilian court system in disrupting potential attacks and effectively interrogating, prosecuting and incarcerating terrorists.
"I don't need to be told — by anyone — about the seriousness of the dangers we face. I begin each day with a briefing on the most urgent threats made against the United States in the preceding 24 hours. I know that — in distant countries, and within our own borders — there are people intent on, and actively plotting to, kill Americans," he said.
"Despite this reality, we continue to see overheated rhetoric that is detached from history — and from the facts," Holder said. "We see crucial national security tools, once again, being put at risk by those who disparage the American criminal justice system, and misguidedly claim that terror suspects cannot be tried safely in our civilian courts."
Since the Sept.11, 2001, attacks, hundreds of defendants have been convicted in the federal court system of terrorism or terrorism-related violations, said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd.
"Critical decisions on national security cases should be handled by the veteran counterterrorism agents, intelligence analysts and prosecutors around the country who for years have been doing this work for a living — often at great risk to themselves — not politicians looking to score political points," Boyd said. "Decisions about how, where and when to prosecute suspects, particularly terrorism suspects, must always be free of external political pressure."
Lexington Herald-Leader Frankfort reporter Beth Musgrave contributed to this report.