WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Wednesday strongly defended its decision to try the alleged plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks in a civilian New York court, but faced criticism from Republican senators who called it a "perversion" of justice that would risk freeing some of the world's most notorious terrorists.
President Obama supported such a trial in interviews with several U.S. television networks before leaving Beijing for South Korea on Wednesday. Obama said those offended by the constitutional protections being given to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators ultimately won't find it "offensive at all when he's convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him."
But in Washington, some Republican lawmakers sparred with Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. over his announcement Friday that he was transferring the case of the five men from the U.S. military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a federal courthouse just blocks from ground zero in Manhattan.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said the transfer to New York was proof that the Obama administration was wrongly "criminalizing" a war on terrorism in which those captured should be tried as "enemy combatants" in war crimes tribunals. Others said Mohammed would use a trial expected to be followed by millions worldwide as a stage from which to spew violent anti-American rhetoric, and that it could make New York a prime target for another terrorist strike.
The sharp exchanges at a crowded hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee were a clear indication that opposition to such a trial would only intensify in the months or even years of legal wrangling before it comes to fruition.
Several family members of those killed during the attacks on New York sat directly behind Holder and held up photographs of the deceased. A few cheered when Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) demanded to know how Holder could back up his prediction that the five men would be convicted.
Holder responded by saying that he had told prosecutors that "failure is not an option."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) told Holder that his response was "ludicrous," especially when even one lone juror could sabotage the prosecution's case.
"I'm a farmer, not a lawyer," Grassley said, "but I just want to make that observation."
Public reaction to the prospect of the trial has been mixed. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly both have expressed their support for the administration's position, as have some victims groups. But some of the attendees at the hearing Wednesday brought a foot-high stack of signatures that they said represented more than 100,000 New Yorkers who are demanding that Obama keep the men at Guantanamo.
"I don't feel that they belong on American soil," said Theresa Regan, whose firefighter husband Donald died at the World Trade Center. "They took my husband's rights away, and they don't deserve to have the kind of rights they will get in a U.S. court."
On the House side, Republicans intensified their efforts to block the trial by prohibiting the transfer of the detainees from Guantanamo to the U.S.
Meanwhile, Obama, in his televised interviews from China, acknowledged for the first time that his administration would miss a self-imposed January deadline to close the Guantanamo detention center, though administration officials have acknowledged for weeks that that was likely.
Mohammed and his four alleged accomplices have been at Guantanamo since September 2006, when President Bush ordered them moved from CIA secret prisons overseas so they could face military justice.
In more than three hours of testimony, Holder said he was convinced that a civilian court would convict Mohammed, two top lieutenants, an Al Qaeda paymaster and Mohammed's nephew, all of whom are accused of participating in the Sept. 11 plot.
And he said federal authorities in New York had a proven track record of prosecuting and safeguarding such complicated trials.
"We need not cower in the face of this enemy. Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is sturdy, our resolve is firm, and our people are ready," Holder said.
Holder also said he was not worried about whether Mohammed, Al Qaeda's chief of operations before the attacks, makes public statements similar to those he made at preliminary hearings at Guantanamo.
If he does, Holder said, "I have every confidence that the nation and the world will see him for the coward that he is. I'm not scared of what Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has to say at trial, and no one else needs to be afraid either."
At the hearing, Holder's arguments were bolstered by virtually every Democratic senator on the judiciary committee, which oversees the Justice Department.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was supportive, but said New York would need federal funds to accommodate such a high-profile trial. He said New York officials recently told him it would cost $75 million just for initial logistics.
But Holder's biggest defender was Obama, who told CNN that federal courts, especially those in New York, had been used to convict "hundreds of terrorist suspects" now imprisoned in the United States.
"And, you know, I think this notion that somehow we have to be fearful, that these terrorists . . . possess some special powers that prevent us from presenting evidence against them, locking them up and, you know, exacting swift justice, I think that has been a fundamental mistake," Obama said, in a clear rejection of Bush administration policies.
The president also said that even though it was Holder's decision to make, he would answer for it, especially if something goes wrong.
"I always have to take responsibility," he said. "That's my job."