In a reversal of Obama administration policy, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks will be tried before a military commission.
President Obama had long fought to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other 9/11 suspects in civilian court.
It also came the same day the president announced his 2012 reelection bid and resulted in criticism from some of the left-leaning blogs about the administration’s 180-degree turn on the issue.
Holder said the administration’s reversal on the trial’s venue was a result of Congress blocking the use of federal funds last year to move any of the Guantánamo detainees to the U.S. for trial.
He strongly criticized lawmakers, saying they do not have the appropriate knowledge about the cases pending against the alleged 9/11 plotters to make a sound judgment call on where they should be tried.
“The reality is, though, I know this case in a way that members of Congress do not. I’ve looked at the files, I’ve spoken to the prosecutors, I know the tactical concerns that have to go into this decision. So do I know better than them? Yes. I respect their ability to disagree. But I think they should respect the fact that this is an executive-branch function.”
Though the administration will continue to seek a repeal of the congressional move, Holder said it was more important to push forward with the prosecution of Mohammed and other suspected 9/11 plotters.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama pledged to close the detention base and restore civilian trials to the detainees. He also suspended the military commissions shortly after taking office, calling for a review to ensure their fairness. But during the suspension, lawmakers in both parties bucked the administration’s efforts to hold civilian trials in their districts and states, including Holder’s push to try Mohammed in a civilian court in New York City in 2009. Last month, in an about-face, the president ordered military trials to resume.
Holder said Monday that he has “full faith and confidence” in the military commission system and that the Department of Justice will support the Department of Defense’s lead on the cases. Holder said that DoJ would continue to prosecute other suspected terrorists in civilian courts.
“Let me be very clear — our national security demands that we continue to prosecute terrorists in federal courts, and we will do so,” said Holder.
Holder stressed that despite the “needless” political battles that have surrounded the issue, the heart of the matter has always revolved around providing justice to the surviving family members of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
He also noted the decision to move forward with military trials would “probably extend the time” it takes to close the Guantánamo prison facility.
The attorney general was unsure whether prosecutors in a military commission could seek the death penalty if the defendants pleaded guilty.
Aside from Mohammed, Holder said that suspected 9/11 plotters Walid Bin Attash, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa al-Hawsawi would be tried in a military commission.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) applauded the announcement, but blasted the White House for “playing politics” and taking more than two years to reach the decision.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called the decision “another vindication of President Bush’s detention policies by the Obama administration.”
Smith, King and other Republicans argue that suspected terrorists should be treated as enemies captured in the theater of war, and therefore tried using military commissions. But the administration has held that U.S. civilian courts are adequately equipped to handle the cases.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a leader of the push to resume trials by military tribunal, called the commissions “the appropriate venue” for the proceedings, saying they balance the “interest of the accused with the safety of our nation as a whole in this time of war.”
Graham introduced a bill last month that would prohibit the use of DoJ funds to prosecute anyone allegedly involved in the 9/11 attacks in civilian court.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a vocal opponent of holding a civilian trial for the suspects in New York, said he supports the move.
“This means with certainty that the trial will not be in New York. While not unexpected, this is the final nail in the coffin of that wrong-headed idea,” he said in a statement.
Administration efforts to stage civilian trials for terror suspects were hurt last year by Ahmed Ghailani’s acquittal on more than 224 counts of murder and other charges. Ghailani was sentenced to life in prison for his role in bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa, but the acquittal on the other charges led to doubts about civilian courts’ ability to handle detainee trials.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday said the president concurred with Holder’s announcement, and cited political realities as the reason to resume trials at the facility in Cuba, rather than hold them in U.S. civilian courts.
“What has transpired over the last several years with regards to these issues is well-known to everyone,” Carney said at his daily briefing. “Congressional opposition to some of these decisions has created obstacles that made it very hard — that became very hard to overcome.”
—This story was initially posted at 12:36 p.m. and last updated at 8:37 p.m.
Michael O'Brien contributed.