WASHINGTON — After an emotional debate over how to keep Americans safe, the Senate Thursday narrowly defeated an effort to prevent civilian trials in U.S. courts for the accused planners of the 9/11 attacks.
The Senate's 54-45 vote to reject the measure by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., opens the door for President Barack Obama to bring Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to trial in federal court, rather than the military commissions Graham helped create.
Obama has pledged to shutter the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by January and transfer some of its 220 detainees to the U.S. for trials in civilian courts.
Three Democrats — Jim Webb of Virginia and Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor — and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut joined all 40 Senate Republicans in voting for the measure.
Graham, a military lawyer who's served active duty in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, pleaded with his colleagues to back his amendment to a spending measure for the Justice Department and other federal agencies.
"Tell the president that we're not going to sit by as a body and watch the mastermind of 9/11 go into civilian court and criminalize this war," Graham said. "If he goes to federal court, here's what awaits — a chaos zoo trial."
Graham, who helped craft the 2009 Military Commissions Act, said he wants all the Guantanamo detainees to be tried before military tribunals. He crafted his measure narrowly, however, to focus on Mohammed and five other alleged Sept. 11 plotters at the Guantanamo prison.
"Khalid Sheik Mohammed didn't rob a liquor store," Graham said. "He took this nation to war, and he killed 3,000 of our innocent citizens."
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said federal courts have convicted 195 felons of terror-related crimes since the 2001 attacks, while military tribunals have produced only three convictions.
"The Graham amendment would be an unprecedented intrusion into the authority of the executive branch of our government to combat terrorism," Durbin said. "To argue that we cannot successfully prosecute a terrorist in an American court is to ignore the truth and to ignore history."
The Supreme Court struck down the military commission system set up by President George W. Bush, and in a later ruling put restrictions on revamped tribunals that Congress had subsequently created.
Christopher Anders, the senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, hailed the terrorism vote.
"Thankfully, the Senate has made the right decision by not tying the president's hands when it comes to prosecuting detainees," Anders said. "Making it more difficult to prosecute detainees in our federal courts only serves to delay bringing them to justice."
A bevy of powerful senators joined the nearly three-hour debate, among them the chairmen of the Senate Armed Services and Judiciary committees, 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, and a former federal judge and former prosecutors.
"We're the most powerful nation on earth, with the most tested court system on earth," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. "Are we going to tell the world . . . we're not up to trying the people who have struck at us?"
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