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Holder, Gates: Allow terror trials in civil courts

WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Congress on Thursday not to restrict the executive branch from prosecuting terror suspects either in federal courts or in military commissions in the United States.

The request in a joint letter to leaders of the House of Representatives ratchets up the debate between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans on how best to proceed legally against people accused of terror activities.

Congressional restrictions on terror prosecutions would be unwise and would set a dangerous precedent, Holder and Gates told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and House Republican Leader John Boehner.

"In order to protect the American people as effectively as possible, we must be in a position to use every lawful instrument of national power - including both courts and military commissions - to ensure that terrorists are brought to justice and can no longer threaten American lives," Holder and Gates wrote.

Republican Rep. Peter King has proposed legislation that would prevent the Obama administration from putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and other terror suspects on trial in federal civilian court in New York City or in other American communities. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, joined by about half the Senate’s Republicans and a few Democrats, has made a similar proposal.

Holder and Gates said, "We have been unable to identify any precedent in the history of our nation in which Congress has intervened in such a manner to prohibit the prosecution of particular persons or crimes."

In anti-terror actions, "we ensure that all relevant factors are carefully considered" when determining whether the Justice Department should prosecute a case against terror defendants in civilian courts or whether the Defense Department should try them under the Military Commissions Act of 2009.

They said the exercise of prosecutorial discretion always has been and should remain an executive branch function.

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