By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's nominee for deputy attorney general on Tuesday faced Republican ire for how the administration has been handling terrorism prosecutions and giving suspects U.S. legal rights.
The Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed the nomination of James Cole, 58, to be deputy attorney general at a crucial time as the administration reconsiders how to prosecute the accused plotters of the September 11, 2001, attacks and it investigates the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Cole tried to fend off Republican questions about the use of military commissions for terrorism suspects and when they should be given legal rights such as the ability to remain silent under questioning and be given a defense lawyer.
Senator Jeff Sessions, the committee's top Republican, seized on an opinion piece Cole wrote in 2002 that raised concerns about the Bush administration's handling of the prosecution of terrorism suspects.
"It was a position directly critical of the concept of military commissions," Sessions told Cole. "Now are you saying that you left something out you'd like to put in that op-ed, and that if you draw up a good military commission, you don't think it undermines the Constitution of the United States?"
Cole said there were constitutional questions about the initial military commissions that were set up and ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court. He said they have since been improved and can be used.
Cole repeated the administration's support for using both military and criminal trials for prosecuting terrorism suspects. "We need all of the tools," he told lawmakers.
Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to prosecute the plotters of the September 11 attacks in a criminal court in the heart of Manhattan was sidelined after bipartisan concerns emerged about security and whether they should be tried in special military courts instead.
The White House put that effort on hold while officials re-evaluate whether it was the right venue and location for the trials but they have not set a deadline for a decision.
Republicans also focused on a controversy that erupted after the bombing attempt of a U.S. airliner on Christmas last year in which the suspect was given legal rights, known as Miranda rights, by authorities hours after being arrested.
Republican Senator John Cornyn asked why a suspected terrorist would be read Miranda rights when it was more important to get information about his travels, associations and knowledge of terror networks.
Cole replied that the right to remain silent and to have a lawyer were ingrained in the U.S. Constitution and while there are exceptions in cases where a threat may still be imminent, such rights did not always stop suspects from talking.
"My experience frankly in criminal law for 30 years is that frequently after being given Miranda warnings and after being given a lawyer, defendants and people who are being detained talk and they talk a lot," he said.
Cole agreed to work with lawmakers on an effort by the administration to clarify how legal rights for terrorism suspects should be administered.
Cole also was asked about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and he repeated statements by Obama and Holder that BP Plc would be held liable to pay for the damage and cleanup.
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Bill Trott)