U.S. will try 9/11 plotters in New York, forsaking military trials

Alleged al Qaida kingpin Khalid Sheik Mohammed, in detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo courtesy Jarret Brachman via Miami Herald/MCT)
Alleged al Qaida kingpin Khalid Sheik Mohammed, in detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo courtesy Jarret Brachman via Miami Herald/MCT) Courtesy Jarret Brachman

Confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his four co-accused will face a federal trial in New York City — not a military tribunal in Guantanamo, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Friday.

Charges against the alleged al Qaeda kingpin have not yet been filed in the Manhattan court.

But President Barack Obama's administration has decided to abandon a Pentagon prosecution and pursue the case of the mass murder case of nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001 in a civilian setting.

"They will be brought to New York -- to New York -- to answer to their alleged crimes in a courtroom just blocks away from where the Twin Towers once stood,'' Holder said.

He added that he would ask prosecutors, jointly working on the case from New York City and Virginia, to seek the death penalty for all five men. "These were extraordinary crimes so we will seek extraordinary penalties,'' he said.

Military charges seeking the death penalty in the complex conspiracy case against Mohammed, his nephew and three other men will now be withdrawn.

The announcement is a key step in Obama's commitment to close the prison camps at Guantánamo. President George W. Bush ordered the 9/11 accused and other high-value detainees moved to Cuba from secret CIA custody in 2006 to go before his administration's special tribunals.

Obama — in Tokyo on a wide-ranging trip to Asia — did not confirm the details of Holder's announcement but suggested his administration's plan would stand up to international scrutiny.

"I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheik Mohammed will be subjected to the most exacting demands of justice,'' Obama said at a joint news conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

Obama wants accused terrorists 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 Qaeda's 1998 U.S. Embassies bombings in East Africa -- to Manhattan for trial.

There were no immediate plans to move the five former CIA-held captives to Manhattan. Under a law that expires in September, the administration must notify Congress 45 days in advance of a Guantánamo transfer to U.S. soil for trial.

Republican critics in Congress slammed the developments as "irresponsible.''

House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said a federal trial left open "the possibility'' that the Sept. 11 accused "could be found 'not guilty' due to some legal technicality just blocks from Ground Zero should give every American pause.''

Military commissions created by the Bush administration, he said, "were specifically designed to prosecute such heinous acts.''

"This decision is further evidence that the White House is reverting to a dangerous pre-9/11 mentality -- treating terrorism as a law enforcement issue and hoping for the best,'' Boehner added.

Holder also announced that Justice Department attorneys had decided to continue with the prosecutions of five other Guantanamo captives at a military commission, most notably Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of orchestrating the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 39 others. Also to be tried by military commission is Canadian Omar Khadr, who is accused of killing an American soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan.

It was unclear where the military commission trials would be held but Defense Department sources have told The Miami Herald that the U.S. Navy managed brig in Charleston, S.C., is a continued site of interest.

Obama has ordered his administration to empty and close the controversial prison camps in southeast Cuba by Jan. 22, a deadline that senior Cabinet members have said will likely slip.

There were 215 detainees at Guantanamo on Friday -- 10 of them in military commission proceedings. Afghan Mohammed Kamin, a long-held captive accused of aiding al Qaeda, has a pre-trial hearing on Wednesday.

The decision to allow the chief Pentagon prosecutor to pursue a military commission case against Nashiri, a Yemeni, in the USS Cole bombing could be complicated by the CIA's confirmation that it subjected Nashiri, like Mohammed, to waterboarding in secret black site interrogation, a technique the Obama administration has defined as "torture.''

In all, 17 U.S. sailors were killed in the Cole bombing off Aden harbor in October 2000. Thirty-nine others were injured. The badly damaged Cole was brought back to the United States, restored and is now based in Norfolk, Va.

Mohammed and his co-accused have repeatedly boasted of their roles in the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 19 men hijacked four commercial airliners and slammed them into the Pentagon, World Trade Center and a Pennsylvania field. Unclear is whether their comments and letters to a military judge at Guantánamo would be considered evidence at a federal trial.

The American Civil Liberties Union -- a leading critic of military commissions -- hailed the decision to move the 9/11 case to New York but decried the Obama administration's decision to retain war crimes trials in other cases.

"It's disappointing that the administration has chosen to prosecute some Guantánamo detainees in the unsalvageable military commissions system,'' said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero.

But, he said, the decision to hold the Sept. 11 trial in federal court was "a huge victory for restoring due process and the rule of law, as well as repairing America's international standing, an essential part of ensuring our national security.''

In response to a reporter's question, Holder defended the decision to split the Guantánamo cases between civilian and military venues.

He said the 9/11 accused would face civilian trial in New York because "it is a fundamental tenet'' in U.S. law that accused be tried "where the crimes took place.''

Those facing military trials are accused of war crimes overseas, mostly in Afghanistan but also in the Persian Gulf.

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