By Tony Romm - 11/13/09 04:30 PM EST
Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday announced prosecutors would seek the death penalty for five suspected Sept. 11 plotters in a federal court in New York City.
Holder said the trial would take place “just blocks away from where the twin towers once stood.”
The announcement represents a significant step in the White House’s effort to close the Guantánamo camp by early next year.
Much of the reason the controversial prison remains open is an uncertainty about where to house and how to prosecute its many detainees.
Friday’s revelation that 10 of its most well-known suspected terrorists would see their day in court meant the White House was making progress on one of those fronts, but Holder stressed the administration was still a long way from meeting its goal of closing the prison early next year.
“I think it's going to be difficult to close the facility by Jan. 22, and one of the things that is most problematic ... is finding places where they can be safely placed, both for the nation that will host them and for American citizens," Holder said.
Holder deflected concerns that the legal fallout from the use of controversial interrogation techniques including waterboarding on the suspects would inhibit convictions. He insisted undisclosed, classified evidence would be enough to win each terrorism case and secure the maximum sentence available.
President Barack Obama said he is “absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice” in a civilian court. Obama spoke during a press availability in Japan before Holder’s press conference.
Republicans said the move set a dangerous precedent and could severely threaten each case's outcome.
“The president’s decision to bring 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the United States for trial in the United States federal courts will once again delay bringing justice to the victims and their families, introduces unnecessary risk to the citizens of New York and undermines the legitimacy of the military commissions system,” Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.), ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
That objection was later echoed by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chair of his chamber's Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. Lieberman described Friday's move as "inconceivable," and he scolded the Justice Department for bringing "these alleged terrorists back to New York for trial, to the scene of the carnage they created eight years ago."
“The terrorists who planned, participated in, and aided the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks are war criminals, not common criminals," he said in a statement. "The individuals accused of committing these heinous, cowardly acts of intentionally targeting unsuspecting, defenseless civilians should therefore be tried by military commission rather than in civilian courts in the United States.”
The attorney general also insisted the suspects would get a fair trial from a jury in that court.
Holder also announced the Justice Department’s prime suspect in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, will appear soon before a military commission, along with several other Guantánamo Bay detainees.
Obama has long said different courts are more appropriate for different prosecutions.
Holder's statement included a shot at the Bush administration: "After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for that attacks of September the 11th will finally face justice," Holder said.
The decision was criticized not only by Republicans but by a coalition of victims’ families.
“This decision is a victory for those who perpetrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, not the American people,” Military Families United said in a statement. It said the Obama administration had “capitulated” to the demands of attorneys representing the suspected Sept. 11 planners.
This story was updated at 12:24 p.m.