— The killing of Osama bin Laden was legally justified, and would have been even if the al-Qaida leader had made some sign that he wished to surrender, Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday.
"The operation in which Osama bin Laden was killed was lawful," Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "He was the head of al-Qaida, an organization that had conducted the attacks of September 11th. He admitted his involvement and he indicated that he would not be taken alive. The operation against bin Laden was justified as an act of national self defense."
Holder said bin Laden was a legitimate military target and he had made no attempt to surrender to the U.S. forces that stormed his fortified compound near Islamabad on Monday. He was shot in the chest and head.
It was lawful to target an enemy commander in the field and the mission was conducted in the way that was consistent with U.S. laws and values, Holder testified, adding that it was a "kill or capture mission."
"If he had attempted to surrender, I think we should obviously have accepted that, but there was no indication that he wanted to do that. And therefore his killing was appropriate," Holder said.
U.S. acknowledgment on Tuesday that bin Laden was unarmed when killed had raised accusations Washington had violated international law. Exact circumstances of his death remained unclear.
Five people were killed in the raid, officials said: bin Laden; his son, Khalid; his most trusted courier, a man who used the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti; and al-Kuwaiti's wife and brother. The latest White House account leaves open the question of whether there was any gunfire from bin Laden's defenders in his room before the commandos shot him.
Bin Laden was buried at sea from a U.S. Navy ship scant hours after his death.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said "you have to believe this guy was a walking IED," and that any of the Navy SEALs would have wanted to kill bin Laden as far away as possible from the other members of the American team.
The attorney general agreed with Graham that there was a sound legal basis for the raid.
"It was a kill or capture mission," Holder said, adding "He made no attempts to surrender, and I tend to agree with you that even if he had, there would be a good basis on the part of those very brave Navy Seal team members to do what they did in order to protect themselves and the other people who were in that building."
Holder was under a second day of oversight questioning on Capitol Hill; Tuesday he was questioned by the House Judiciary Committee.
Even as many European leaders congratulated the U.S. government on the operation, many said the slaying was of symbolic value. They pointed out that the terror cells working in Europe have long functioned independently and may try to avenge bin Laden's death.
"The fight against terrorism and extremism has, of course, not ended with this," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said earlier in the week in Berlin.