The Obama administration abandoned plans for a civilian trial in New York City for the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and is sending the case to a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Attorney General Eric Holder blamed Congress for the administration’s decision to move the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged co-conspirators to the military justice system. Lawmakers enacted legislation that blocked the administration from moving terror suspects from Guantanamo to the U.S. for trial, and the administration decided it couldn’t allow the case to be delayed while it worked to repeal the restrictions, Holder said.
“Members of Congress have intervened and imposed restrictions blocking the administration from bringing any Guantanamo detainees to trial in the United States, regardless of the venue,” Holder told a news conference in Washington yesterday. “Those unwise and unwarranted restrictions undermine our counterterrorism efforts and could harm our national security.”
The administration’s 2009 announcement about holding a New York trial ignited fierce debate in congress that continued ever since. Republican leaders argued against a trial in federal court, saying it could pose a safety risk in New York and that the alleged terrorists could be found not guilty on a legal technicality. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and other Democrats stood by civilian trials, saying the court system had a proven record of handling terrorism cases.
The administration announced last year that it was reconsidering holding the trial in New York City after objections from lawmakers and city officials.
The decision to hold the trials at Guantanamo helps further postpone a hallmark initiative that President Barack Obama announced soon after he took office: to close the prison there opened by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. The administration still wants to shutter the facility, Holder said. The Obama administration says it has become a recruiting tool used by terrorists.
The Justice Department was prepared to bring a “powerful” case against the suspects in civilian court that Holder described as “one of the most well-researched and documented cases I have ever seen in my decades of experience as a prosecutor.”
Senators John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, said in a joint statement that they were pleased with the administration’s decision.
The suspects “are charged with war crimes and their cases belong before military commissions, not federal courts here in the United States,” they said.
Congress and the Obama administration improved the military commissions in 2009 and created a system that “is fair and consistent with our values while ensuring the safety of American citizens and preserving classified information during wartime,” McCain and Lieberman said.
Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and one of the administration’s most vocal critics over holding a civilian trial, called Guantanamo the “ideal setting” for the trial because it is ’’fully secure.’’
“We have witnessed the serious problems that arise when high-level terrorists are tried in civilian courts -- including the dismissal of important evidence, attacks on guards, intelligence leaks and enormous burdens on the surrounding community,” Sessions said.
‘Broken and Deficient’
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that the commissions are “broken and deficient” and shouldn’t be used to try the Sept. 11 suspects.
“There is a reason this system is condemned: It is rife with constitutional and procedural problems and undermines the fundamental American values that have made us a model throughout the world for centuries,” he said.
Holder said he had “full faith and confidence” in the military commission system’s ability to handle the case.
Leahy, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the suspects should have been tried in federal court.
“When Americans are murdered on American soil, we should not be afraid to bring those responsible for those heinous acts to justice in American courts,’” Leahy said in a statement.
The Pentagon’s chief prosecutor for military commissions, Navy Captain John Murphy, said his office would file charges in the case “in the near future.”
“I intend to recommend the charges be sent to a military commission for a joint trial,” Murphy said in a statement.
Holder said “it’s an open question” about whether a suspect can plead guilty in a military commission and still receive the death penalty. In announcing plans for a civilian trial in 2009, Holder said he expected to direct prosecutors to seek the death penalty against the Sept. 11 suspects.
Murphy declined to comment on whether the defendants might face the death penalty, saying prosecutors will make the determination in preparing the case.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was among those last year to call for the trial to be moved. The New York mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“While we would have provided security if we had to here in New York City, being spared the expense is good for us,” Bloomberg said yesterday at a news conference in the Bronx. “I happen to think that it’s more appropriate to do it in a secured area with a military tribunal.”
Holder said yesterday that the administration considered other locations outside New York City because of the objections.
As a result of the decision to move the case to the military justice system, a Manhattan federal judge ordered the unsealing and dismissal of criminal charges against the Sept. 11 suspects.
The 80-page indictment, which named the almost 3,000 people killed in the attacks, charged Mohammed and four others with conceiving and helping execute the plan to hijack airliners and crash them into U.S. buildings “causing maximum casualties and destruction.”
The indictment charged Mohammed, Walid Bin Attash, Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Al-Hawsawi with nine criminal counts including conspiracy, acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, violence on and destruction of aircraft, aircraft piracy, murder of U.S. officers and employees, destruction of the World Trade Center and conspiracy to kill Americans.