WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Would U.S. forces kill or capture al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, if they ever found him? The goal is to capture him, the Pentagon insists, but the leading U.S. law enforcement official says that's not likely.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who Republicans accuse of giving too many legal rights to terrorism suspects, told a House panel this week that bin Laden "will never appear in an American courtroom."
Holder indicated the Saudi-born leader of the group that mounted the September 11, 2001 attacks would almost certainly be killed by U.S. forces or his own people, since bin Laden has indicated he would rather die fighting.
But the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan assured on Wednesday the objective was still to find bin Laden and bring him to justice. Not kill him.
"We certainly would go after trying to capture him alive and bring him to justice. I think that is something that is understood by everyone," General Stanley McChrystal said, briefing reporters in a teleconference. It was unclear if he was aware of Holder's comments.
Western counter-terrorism officials say they believe the al Qaeda leader and top aides are still based in the remote Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged in December the United States has not had any good intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts in years.
What to do with al Qaeda leaders and others plotting attacks on U.S. targets is a major issue in the United States as the Obama administration pushes ahead with plans to prosecute some terrorism suspects in traditional criminal courts.
Holder in particular has faced fierce criticism for planning to try the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a criminal court, with many calling for military trials for him and four alleged co-conspirators.
Holder told lawmakers on Tuesday that "we would be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden," if U.S. forces ever found the al Qaeda leader, referring to a criminal suspect's right to remain silent and have an attorney present during questioning.
"Either he will be killed by us, or he will be killed by his own people so that he is not captured by us," Holder said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report last year blaming the lack of concerted efforts by former President George W. Bush's administration and U.S. military commanders for allowing bin Laden to escape from the Tora Bora caves of Afghanistan in late 2001.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Jeremy Pelofsky; editing by Todd Eastham)