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updated: 7/26/2011 2:05 PM

Administration defends terror prosecution decision

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Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Prosecuting a suspected Somali terrorist in a U.S. civilian court is in the best interest of the country's national security, the Obama administration said Tuesday, pushing back against Republicans who have challenged the government's decision to use civilian courts to try terrorists.

In a letter to more than 40 Republican senators, officials said they reviewed the case and came to a unanimous decision to try Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame in a federal court.

He was captured by U.S. military officials in April and questioned by intelligence officials for two months aboard a Navy warship. He was later indicted by a grand jury in the Southern District of New York, in lieu of a military trial.

"There were unique legal issues associated with military commission jurisdiction that posed significant litigation risks," including the use of classified evidence that would be avoided in federal court, the letter by Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and director of national intelligence James Clapper said.

Under interrogation this spring, Warsame gave up what officials have called important intelligence about al-Qaida in Yemen and its relationship with militants in Somalia. Court documents said Warsame fought and helped train members of the Somalia-based terror group, Al-Shabab, and helped support and train al-Qaida in Yemen, making him a valuable intelligence asset because he had access to both groups. The two groups have been known to have ties, but the extent of that relationship has been unclear.

After Warsame's interrogation by intelligence officials, the FBI stepped in and began the interrogation from scratch, in a way that could be used in federal court. After the FBI read Warsame his Miranda rights -- the right to remain silent and speak with an attorney -- he opted to keep talking for days.

The normally routine machinations of criminal prosecution became political issues when Obama took office and promised to end harsh interrogation tactics and close Guantanamo Bay. Congress has blocked the administration from transferring any detainees out of Guantanamo Bay for trial in the U.S., and some lawmakers are also questioning whether all new terrorism cases should be handled by military commissions.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been one of the most outspoken Republicans in favor of using military commissions.

In a July 6 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, 43 senators, including McConnell, said the government's decision to try Warsame in civilian court reverses U.S. policy and adds unnecessary costs and risks to local governments and communities.

But the administration pointed to the government's track record of trying terrorists in federal courts, regardless of where they are captured. The administration also said it costs more than $700,000 extra to hold a detainee at Guantanamo than to house a prisoner in a U.S. federal prison.