WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to prosecute confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged underlings in civilian courts ignited a debate Friday about whether the trial would invite new attacks on New York and if the proceeding would be stymied by legal wrangling over the defendants' rights.
In deciding to proceed with the first U.S. criminal prosecution of those directly involved in the terrorist attacks eight years ago, Holder expressed his complete confidence in a successful outcome. He also said he intends to ask for the death penalty.
Congressional Republicans, however, charged that forgoing military commissions in favor of a trial, within blocks of the site where hijacked planes leveled the World Trade Center, will risk the release of some of the world's most dangerous men. Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas warned that "bringing these dangerous individuals onto U.S. soil needlessly compromises the safety of all Americans."
Other critics said that the trial could be bogged down by issues of mental competency, especially for detainees who were kept in isolation for years and in some cases subjected to brutal interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.
Holder said that it was his job to set aside politics, follow the law and "do what's best" for the country.
Americans, especially family members of the 2,872 people who were killed on Sept. 11, 2001, "deserve the opportunity to see the alleged plotters of those attacks held accountable in court, an opportunity that has been too long delayed," he said.
Holder was confident that federal authorities could protect New York, which he described as a "hardened system" after many successful terrorism prosecutions.
Administration officials described the decision as a "significant step" toward fulfilling President Barack Obama's campaign promise to close the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, though Holder said he doubted they'd meet a Jan. 22 deadline.
"To the extent that there are political consequences, I'll just have to take my lumps," Holder said. ". . . I think the criticism will be relatively muted."
Neither of the previous two attorneys general were mute Friday.
Michael Mukasey, Holder's predecessor and a former federal judge in the same court where the men will be tried, called the decision "unwise" and said that the trials will amount to a "social experiment." He told a national convention of the conservative Federalist Society that evidence against the men, including classified intelligence, wasn't gathered with the intent to prosecute them at a highly public federal court trial.
Alberto Gonzales, the Bush administration's point man in its controversial policies toward the detention and treatment of terrorism suspects, said on CNN that Holder's approach raises "a host of legal questions."
"What happens if someone like this is acquitted?" he asked.
However, Human Rights Watch hailed the decision "a victory for justice," while warning that the trial proceedings must be "perceived as fair" to protect America's reputation.
Holder's action culminated a lengthy behind-the-scenes debate among the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the White House over how to handle the most dangerous detainees. Holder called it his most difficult decision since taking office.
He also said that he'd decided to return to the Pentagon, for likely trials before revamped military commissions, the cases of five other Guantanamo detainees, including the alleged leader of the October 2000 bombing in Yemen of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors. That decision wasn't welcomed by civil rights groups, who contend that even the latest version of military commissions is substandard and unjust.
Holder distinguished the two venues — civilian courts or military commissions — partly by whether the attack occurred in a "military setting."
A big obstacle could be whether an impartial jury can be impaneled in the city where the twin towers once stood.
Holder said that a careful jury selection process should dispel those concerns.
"I would not have authorized the bringing of these prosecutions unless I thought that the outcome . . . would ultimately be successful," he said. "I will say that I have access to information that has not been publicly released that gives me great confidence that we will be successful in federal court."
Pentagon and Justice Department officials said privately that, in the unlikely event of an acquittal, other options such as extradition would assure that no one who poses a national security threat would be released into this country.
He said that a grand jury indictment soon would be returned against:
_ Mohammed, who's admitted to spearheading the planning but whom U.S. interrogators subjected to simulated drowning techniques at a secret overseas prison after his capture in March 2003.
_ Ramzi Binalshibh, who was turned away at the U.S. border four times before the attacks, even offering to marry a U.S. citizen to gain access, before allegedly acting as the prime coordinator for the 19 hijackers from Germany.
_ Waleed bin Attash, who the U.S. government says was intended to be a hijacker until he was captured in Yemen earlier in 2001.
_ Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi, the alleged paymaster, suspected of managing the funding for the hijackings and wiring money to the hijackers.
_ Ali Abd al Aziz Ali, a Pakistan-based operative who allegedly transferred money to the U.S. operatives and facilitated their travel from Pakistan to the U.S.
All five have been held for years in overseas prisons and at Guantanamo Bay.
Asked about Holder's decision at a Tokyo news conference, Obama said: "I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheik Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice. The American people will insist on it and my administration will insist on it."
The decision came after federal prosecutors demonstrated that they could overcome huge legal hurdles in the related federal court prosecution of Moussaoui, who was arrested in Minnesota while he was learning to fly a 747 jumbo jet less than a month before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty to capital crimes in 2005 and was spared a death sentence only by a single holdout on the jury after a dramatic trial in 2006. No evidence surfaced that he knew of the Sept. 11 plot.
He's appealing his sentence to life in Colorado's "Supermax" prison, however, on the grounds that he was denied the right to pick his attorney and was barred access to classified information that might have aided in his defense.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Holder's decision, saying that the federal courts have proved "time and time again" that the they're "capable of trying high-profile terrorism and national security cases."
Obama wants terrorism suspects to face trial in traditional federal courts and to reserve military commission trials for other cases. His administration earlier this year moved a Tanzanian detainee — accused as a co-conspirator in al Qaida's 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa — to Manhattan for trial.
Family members of Sept. 11 victims all want justice but are divided over Holder's decision to seek it in a U.S. court room.
Debra Burlingame, whose brother was the pilot of the hijacked American Airlines plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, said she fears that Mohammed will make a mockery of the court "exulting in the suffering of (the) families, ridiculing the judge, his lawyers and the American justice system, and worst of all, rallying his jihadi brothers to kill more Americans."
Valerie Lucz, whose nephew died at the World Trade Center, disagreed.
"The fairness and justice with which we treat these prisoners can be seen by the whole world," she said. Unlike in military commissions, she said, "Here we can see what's going on, everybody can see what's going on. And I think that is eminently important."
(Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this article from Miami.)
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