WASHINGTON (CN) - Attorney General Eric Holder defended his decision to try alleged "Christmas bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in federal court instead of a military tribunal, assuring Republican senators Wednesday that justice would prevail. He said he was confident that the government "will be able to successfully prosecute Mr. Abdulmutallab under the federal criminal law."
"I am equally confident that the decision to address Mr. Abdulmutallab's actions through our criminal justice system has not, and will not, compromise our ability to obtain information needed to detect and prevent future attacks," Holder wrote in his letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
In a Jan. 26 letter, McConnell had asked Holder to explain his decision to prosecute Abdulmutallab in federal court. The 23-year-old Nigerian was arrested for allegedly trying to detonate a bomb concealed in his clothing as Northwest Airlines Flight 253 landed in Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009.
McConnell accused the Obama administration of putting "symbolism over security" by not prosecuting the alleged terrorist under the laws of war. In his Jan. 21 remarks on the Senate floor, McConnell raised questions about the attempted bombing that he found "troubling."
"First, why were Miranda rights given to the obvious terrorist after only a brief session of questioning, which predictably ended his cooperation?" he asked. "Second, at what level of authority was this decision taken to treat him as a criminal defendant instead of an unlawful enemy combatant?"
But Holder insisted that the administration's decision to pursue federal criminal charges drew no objections from the intelligence community, and that "no agency has since advised the Department of Justice that an alternative course of action should have been, or should now be, pursued."
He noted that since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the government under both administrations has used the criminal justice system -- "without a single exception" -- to try suspected terrorists captured in the United States.
"The Bush administration used the criminal justice system to convict more than 300 individuals on terrorism-related charges," Holder wrote, citing the examples of Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussauoi and British "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.
Holder also defended the decisions to give Abdulmutallab an attorney and read him his Miranda rights, which he initially exercised by refusing to talk. He later agreed to cooperate with the FBI, divulging information that the government deemed "useful."
"Mr. Abdulmutallab was questioned by experienced counterterrorism agents from the FBI in the hours immediately after the failed bombing attempt and provided intelligence, and more recently, he has provided additional intelligence to the FBI that we are actively using to help protect our community," Holder wrote.
He said the criminal justice system was one of many weapons in the war "against a dangerous, intelligent and adaptable enemy."
"Removing this highly effective weapon from our arsenal could be as foolish as taking our military and intelligence options off the table against al-Qaida, and as dangerous."
Holder sent copies of the letter to each senator who joined McConnell's Jan. 26 letter.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.