Attorney General Holder: We're at war and civilian courts are our weapon (UPDATE) 

In a speech before the Constitution Project Thursday night, Attorney General Eric Holder rebutted critics, denying that he had "coddled terrorists" or "rubberstamped President Bush's counter-terrorism policies." Instead, he argued, he sought only to protect "America's safety, its interests, and its values by appealing to the rule of law."

Relying heavily on the teleprompter (rarely if ever taking his eyes off of it), Holder defended his efforts to try terrorists in civilian courts as part of his broader push to "win this war":

Let's start with one stark fact. We are a nation at war. In this war we face an intelligent, nimble, and able enemy. ... There are people trying to kill American citizens. ... I am determined to win this war.

...But just as we are a nation at war, we are a nation of laws.

He argued that the government must use every weapon available, and that he was even disappointed in the quality of the debate given the controversy surrounding his decisions:

"It says something about the quality of the debate when the idea of using part of the justice system and military commissions has become so deeply controversial. ... Without civilian articles and civilian courts, we would be denied the use of what has been our most effective weapon [against terrorist plots.]

He went on:

Military commissions only have jurisdiction to prosecute individuals who are affiliated with al Qaeda, the Taliban or affiliated forces. That means members of other terrorists groups, hamas hizbollah, fark, may not be tried in military commissions.

He then made a differentiation: Terrorists inspired by but not part of al Qaeda could not be tried by military tribunals.

Most notable about the speech, however, was the introduction. Constitutional Project founder and president Virginia Sloan described Holder as embodying the sort of bipartisanship to which the organization aspired. I don't think she was being ironic.

Here's the audio of his speech.

UPDATE: A friend asks why it's necessary to mention the teleprompter -- a fair question. Nothing wrong with teleprompters -- they keep you on time and on message. But Holder was speaking before a sympathetic crowd and literally. reading. every. word. aloud to them. To paraphrase Holder himself, it says a lot about the debate when even in such company he's got to lean on it. I also think that reporters should make clear when speakers use prompters -- the distinction between a slip of the tongue in off-the-cuff remarks versus a deliberate statement should be made clear to the reader.

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J.P. Freire

J.P. Freire is the associate editor of commentary. Previously he was the managing editor of the American Spectator. Freire was named journalist of the year for 2009 by the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). You can follow him on Twitter here. Besides the Spectator, Freire's work has appeared in... more
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