By Devlin Barrett, Associated Press Writer
Self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Guantanamo Bay detainees will be brought to trial in a civilian federal courthouse in New York, near the site of the devastating 2001 terror attacks. Prosecutors expect to seek the death penalty.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced the long-awaited and politically fraught decision at a news conference Friday. He also said five other Guantanamo detainees, including a major suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, will be tried through the military commission process.
Holder said the Sept. 11 defendants should be tried where their crimes occurred. Nearly 3,000 people died when the World Trade Center towers were brought down by two hijacked jetliners, another hijacked jet hit the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in western Pennsylvania.
“After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for that attacks of September the 11th will finally face justice,” Holder said. “They will be brought to New York — to New York — to answer for their alleged crimes in a courthouse just blocks away from where the twin towers once stood.”
Bringing such notorious suspects to U.S. soil to face trial is a key step in President Barack Obama’s plan to close the terror suspect detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama initially planned to close the detention center by Jan. 22, but the administration is no longer expected to meet that deadline.
“For over 200 years our nation has relied upon a faithful adherence to the rule of law,” Holder told a news conference at the Justice Department. “Once again, we will ask our legal system in two venues to answer that call.”
The plan that Holder outlined is a major legal and political test of Obama’s overall approach to terrorism. If the case suffers legal setbacks, the administration will face second-guessing from those who never wanted it in a civilian courtroom. And if lawmakers get upset about terrorists being brought to their home regions, they may fight back against other parts of Obama’s agenda.
Early reaction was divided along political lines.
Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said bringing Mohammed to New York was “an unnecessary risk” that could result in the disclosure of classified information. Kyl maintained the trial of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called “blind sheik” who was tried for a plot against some two-dozen New York City landmarks, caused “valuable information about U.S. intelligence sources and methods” to be revealed to the al-Qaida terrorist network.
Former President George W, Bush’s last attorney general, Michael Mukasey, a former federal judge in New York, also objected: “The Justice Department claims that our courts are well suited to the task. Based on my experience trying such cases and what I saw as attorney general, they aren’t.”
But Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the federal courts are capable of trying high-profile terrorism.
“By trying them in our federal courts, we demonstrate to the world that the most powerful nation on earth also trusts its judicial system — a system respected around the world,” Leahy said.
Some family members of Sept. 11 victims were angered by the decision.
“We have a president who doesn’t know we’re at war,” said Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles Burlingame, was pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon. She said she was sickened by “the prospect of these barbarians being turned into victims by their attorneys,” if the trial winds up focusing on allegations that the suspects were tortured after their capture.
Other Sept. 11 families have supported the move toward public trials, saying they want to see justice done openly.
The New York case may force the court system to confront a host of difficult legal issues surrounding counterterrorism programs begun after the 2001 attacks, including the harsh interrogation techniques once used on some of the suspects while in CIA custody. The most severe method — waterboarding, or simulated drowning — was used on Mohammed 183 times in 2003, before the practice was banned.
The five suspects are headed to New York together because they are all accused of conspiring in the 2001 attacks. The five headed to military commissions face a variety of charges but many of them include attacks specifically against the U.S. military.
Holder said no decision had been made on where commission-bound detainees like al-Nashiri might be sent. A brig in South Carolina has been high on the list of sites under consideration.
The actual transfer of the detainees from Guantanamo to New York isn’t expected to happen for many more weeks because formal charges have not been filed against most of them.
The attorney general decided the case of the five Sept. 11 suspects should be handled by prosecutors working in the Southern District of New York, which has held a number of major terrorism trials in recent decades at the courthouse in lower Manhattan. Other federal prosecutors from northern Virginia, site of the Pentagon, will help with the trial, he said.
Holder had been considering other possible trial locations, including Virginia, Washington, D.C., and a different courthouse in New York City. Those districts could end up conducting trials of other Guantanamo detainees sent to federal court later on.
The attorney general’s decision in these cases comes just before a Monday deadline for the government to decide how to proceed against 10 detainees facing military commissions.
The administration has already sent one Guantanamo detainee, Ahmed Ghailani, to New York to face trial. But he is not nearly as notorious as Mohammed, who has proudly proclaimed his role in dozens of terror plots, and has sought to plead guilty in the military system.
Mohammed already has an outstanding terror indictment against him in New York, for an unsuccessful plot called “Bojinka” to simultaneously take down multiple airliners over the Pacific Ocean in the 1990s.
Some members of Congress have fought any effort to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial in the United States; they have argued it would be too dangerous for nearby civilians. The Obama administration has defended the planned trials and pointed out that many terrorists have been safely tried, convicted, and imprisoned in the United States, including the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, Ramzi Yousef.
Holder acknowledged his decision may prove politically unpopular.
“To the extent that there are political consequences, I’ll just have to take my lumps,” said Holder, adding that he hopes the public understands his goal is to “do something that’s rare in Washington: Leave the politics out of it and try to focus on what is in the best interests of the country.”
Mohammed and the four others — Waleed bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi and Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali — are accused of orchestrating the 2001 attacks.
Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, the military lawyer appointed to represent Ramzi Binalshibh, said Sept. 11 attorneys had not been notified of the administration’s decision but welcomed the apparent move to civilian court.
The four other detainees headed to military commissions in the United States are: Omar Khadr, Ahmed Mohammed al Darbi, Ibrahim Ahmed Mahmoud al Qosi, and Noor Uthman Muhammed. Their cases are not specifically connected but two of them are accused of plotting against or attacking U.S. military personnel.
Barry Coburn, a lawyer for Khadr, called the decision about his client “devastating and shocking.”
Khadr “was fifteen years old when he was detained in Afghanistan as a child soldier and has been locked away in Guantanamo ever since.”
Associated Press Writers Pete Yost and Mark Sherman in Washington, David B. Caruso in New York and Ben Fox and Mike Melia in San Juan contributed to this story.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.