Leahy: Oppose Amendment To Block Federal Court Prosecution of Terrorists

[WASHINGTON (Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011) – U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday night in opposition to an amendment pending before the Senate to prohibit the use of federal funds to prosecute terrorists in Article III criminal courts.  The text of Leahy’s statement, as prepared for delivery, follows.]


Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, U.S. Senate Committee On The Judiciary
On Ayotte Amendment SA753 to H.R.2112
(To Prohibit Funding For Prosecuting Terrorists In Article III Criminal Courts)

October 19, 2011


As Prepared for Delivery


This amendment would tie the hands of our national security and law enforcement officers in their efforts to secure our national security.   

I am surprised that this amendment is being offered at this time.  Just a week ago, we learned of the foiled assassination attempt in the United States of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States.  This case involved the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the DEA in a coordinated effort to prevent an act of terrorism on U.S. soil.  I commend the agencies involved in the investigation.  I was also pleased to see that, in this instance, members of Congress did not re-engage in armchair quarterbacking over whether the suspect should be transferred to military custody or sent to Guantanamo. 

Nearly two years ago, when a terrorist attempted to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day, some politicians used the occasion to criticize the Attorney General after the suspect was arrested.  They made all kinds of claims about the risks of trying him in a Federal court, none of which came true.  In fact, after obtaining useful intelligence from the suspect, that case proceeded without incident in Federal court where, last Wednesday, the defendant pleaded guilty.  He now faces a potential life sentence.  That successful prosecution adds to the more than 440 terrorism-related convictions since September 11, 2001.  

Over the last two and one half years, the President and his national security team have done a tremendous job protecting America and taking the fight to our enemies.  Earlier this year, the President ordered a successful strike against Osama bin Laden and has stayed focused on destroying al Qaeda from his first days in office.  Last month, the administration was also able to locate Anwar al Awlaki, a terrorist operative in Yemen who was recruiting Americans to attack within the United States.  During the past two and one half years, the President and his national security team have developed a counterterrorism framework that has protected the American people while taking on al Qaeda and its affiliates.  As the President’s assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan noted last month: “[T]he results . . . under this approach are undeniable.” Al Qaeda has been “severely crippled” and the death of Osama bin Laden was a “strategic milestone” in that effort. 

We must remain vigilant, but no one can deny the progress that has been made.  As Mr. Brennan emphasized, the approach is “a practical, flexible, result-driven approach to counter terrorism that is consistent with our laws, and in line with the very values upon which this nation was founded.”  He noted: “Where terrorists offer injustice, disorder, and destruction, the United States and its allies stand for freedom, fairness, equality, and hope.” 

The Judiciary Committee has held several hearings on the issue of how to best handle terrorism suspects.  Experts and judges from across the political spectrum have agreed that our courts and our criminal justice system can play a role in  this challenge, and indeed has been effectively involved many times already. 

As a former prosecutor, I have absolute faith in the abilities of our Federal courts, prosecutors, and law enforcement to bring terrorists to justice.  The Executive Branch must have all options available in handling terrorism cases, including the ability to prosecute terrorists in Federal criminal courts. 

I find it deeply troubling that the Senate would prohibit the administration from trying terrorists in our Federal courts.  While there may be a place for military commissions in our overall approach to dealing with terrorism suspects, they remain mostly an unproven tool.  The federal courts have dramatically more experience with handling these types of cases and have a proven track record of success.

There have been only six convictions in military commissions since September 11.  Of the six convictions, five resulted from plea bargains.  On average, the sentences given to those six defendants convicted in military commissions have been far shorter than the sentences handed down in Federal criminal courts.  There have been more than 443 terrorism-related convictions in Federal courts since September 11, 2001, including at least 78 convictions during the Obama administration. 

This amendment would deprive Federal law enforcement of a critical tool in bringing terrorists to justice.  It usurps the Attorney General’s constitutional responsibilities.  This is not the path forward.  I urge all Senators to oppose this amendment. 

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