Despite crediting the Pakistani Taliban with fostering the recent failed car bombing in Times Square, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was reluctant Thursday to say radical Islam was part of the cause of that and other recent attacks.
Mr. Holder, testifying to the House Judiciary Committee, repeatedly balked at a half-dozen questions from Rep. Lamar Smith, the ranking Republican on the committee, about whether “radical Islam” was behind the attempted car bombing, last year’s so-called “underpants bomber” or the killings at Fort Hood in Texas.
“There are a variety of reasons why people do these things. Some of them are potentially religious,” Mr. Holder told the committee Thursday, though he would not go further than saying people who hold radical views may have “had an ability to have an impact” on Faisal Shahzad, the man the Justice Department says tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square.
The exchange comes as President Obama and Republicans spar over whether the administration is taking a tough-enough approach to the war on terrorism. Critics want the president to hone his criticism, while he and his advisers have sought to avoid painting the conflict as a battle against a religious belief or its adherents.
“I don’t know why the administration has such difficulty acknowledging the obvious, which is that radical Islam might have incited these individuals,” Mr. Smith, Texas Republican, said after the hearing. “If you can’t name the enemy, then you’re going to have a hard time trying to respond to them.”
In his near daylong appearance before the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Holder was repeatedly asked about Arizona’s new immigration law, which the attorney general has criticized and suggested may run afoul of the Constitution.
Mr. Obama has asked the Justice Department to review the law to determine whether the federal government should try to block it before it takes effect at the end of July.
“I’ve just expressed concerns on the basis of what I’ve heard about the law. But I’m not in a position to say at this point, not having read the law, not having had the chance to interact with people who are doing the review, exactly what my position is,” Mr. Holder said.
Last weekend, Mr. Holder told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program that the Arizona law “has the possibility of leading to racial profiling.” He had earlier called the law’s passage “unfortunate,” and questioned whether the law was unconstitutional because it tried to assume powers that may be reserved for the federal government.
Rep. Ted Poe, who had questioned Mr. Holder about the law, wondered how he could hold those opinions if he hadn’t yet read the legislation.
“It’s hard for me to understand how you would have concerns about something being unconstitutional if you haven’t even read the law,” the Texas Republican told the attorney general.
The Arizona law’s backers argue that it doesn’t go beyond what federal law already allows, and they say press reports have distorted the legislation. They point to provisions in the law that specifically rule out racial profiling as proof that it can be implemented without conflicting with civil rights.
But critics said giving police the power to stop those they suspect are in the country illegally is bound to lead to profiling.
Mr. Holder said he expects the Justice and Homeland Security departments will finish their review of the Arizona law soon.
Meanwhile, the failed Times Square attack is the latest incident in which the administration has found itself explaining its strategy toward terrorism.
Authorities on Thursday raided several locations in the Northeast and detained at least three people on immigration violations, Mr. Holder said.
He said they suspect the three people were involved with providing funds to the suspected bomber, though it was unclear whether they had knowledge of specific plans to try to ignite a car bomb in Times Square.
The attorney general said the Pakistani Taliban is likely responsible for the attack.
Mr. Holder also detailed his plan, raised last weekend, to try to expand the exceptions to Miranda rights warnings police are supposed to give before questioning a suspect.
Mr. Holder said there’s already an exception for public safety, in which evidence is accepted if it was obtained while authorities were trying to head off immediate danger, such as asking a gunman where his gun is. The attorney general said he wants Congress to update that exception for the current fight against terrorists, so officers could ask a suspect if another attack is imminent or if other bombs have been planted.
The American Civil Liberties Union said that was a worrisome departure, and pointed to Mr. Holder’s repeated testimony that reading Miranda rights hasn’t hurt interrogations thus far.
“Even if the administration proposes broadening Miranda exceptions only in terrorism cases, the change is sure to bleed into non-terrorism cases, as there is no way for an arresting officer to know upfront whether or not an arrestee will be charged with terrorism-related crimes,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office.