Holder: ‘I was right’ on 9/11 trial location

Attorney General Eric Holder said he was right to push for trying the 9/11 defendants in federal court in New York.

Holder said Monday that if the trial for alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators had been held in federal court, rather than a military tribunal at Guantánamo Bay, the defendants would already be on death row.

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"I think that what we have seen over these past four years — not to be egocentric about this — but I was right,” Holder said.

The Obama administration in 2009 suspended the military commissions at Guantánamo and said it planned to hold the 9/11 trial in a downtown Manhattan federal court.

But the administration abandoned the plans amid fierce pushback from Republicans in Congress and New York officials, who were worried about the costs, security risks and abandoning the military tribunals.

The Obama administration restarted the military tribunal process for Mohammed and other defendants at Guantánamo in 2011.

The Guantánamo trial for the five 9/11 defendants remains in pre-trial proceedings, with the trial not expected to begin for another year at least.  Defense attorneys have said the pre-trial classification fights will push the trial date back to 2016.

Holder said at an unrelated press conference on Monday that the concerns raised about security and costs in Manhattan were unfounded.

“I think that had we gone along the path that I announced at that time, we would not have had to close down half of Manhattan, it wouldn't have cost the $200 million a year and the defendants would be on death row as we speak,” he said.

“We unfortunately did not go down that road, I think, for reasons other than those connected to the litigation,” he said. “I think this is an example of what happens when politics gets into matters that ought to be simply decided by lawyers and by the national security experts.”

The Obama administration has placed terrorism suspects it has captured into the federal court system, rather than bringing them to Guantánamo, which President Obama has vowed to close.

The fight over trying terror suspects in federal or military courtrooms is part of the larger battle between the Obama administration and many Republicans over closing the Guantánamo detention facility itself. 

— Ben Goad contributed