Obama administration does an about-face on 9/11 trials

In 2009, the Obama administration had pushed to try Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and others in a civilian court in New York. Now, after strong opposition arose from Republicans and Democrats, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder Jr. announces that the suspects will be tried by a military commission in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

April 04, 2011|By Michael Muskal, Los Angeles Times
  • Sketch of September 11, 2001 attack co-defendant Khalid Shaikh Mohammed done during a hearing at Guantanamo Bay.
Sketch of September 11, 2001 attack co-defendant Khalid Shaikh Mohammed… (Janet Hamlin / Getty Images )

Sometimes putting the best face forward requires doing an about-face, as the long trail to trial for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed demonstrates.

Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and four accused co-conspirators will be tried by a military commission in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, instead of in a civilian court in New York, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder Jr. announced Monday. The move marks a shift in the Obama administration's policy in the face of sharp opposition from a host of officials, some of who had earlier supported a civilian trial in New York.

"We were prepared to bring a powerful case against the 9/11 defendants in federal court, and had this case proceeded as planned, I'm confident our justice system would have performed with the same distinction that has been its hallmark for more than 200 years," Holder said in Washington, D.C. "Unfortunately, members of Congress have intervened and imposed restrictions blocking the administration from bringing any Guantanamo detainees to trial in the United States."

In 2009, the Obama administration had pushed to try Mohammed in a civilian court in New York, but faced complaints from Republicans and Democrats, who opposed moving the terror suspects to U.S. prisons.

The Obama administration had sought civilian trials arguing the decision was a moral and legal one. By moving the trials to a civilian venue, the United States would demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law.

"We need not cower in the face of this enemy," Holder told Congress at the time, explaining his decision. "Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is sturdy, our resolve is firm, and our people are ready."

Obama strongly backed his attorney general, telling reporters on a trip to Asia: "We have to break ... this fearful notion that somehow our justice system can't handle these guys."

But those efforts failed to sway some New York City officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and some members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, who raised security questions about a civilian trial in New York, the site of the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Bloomberg initially supported having the trial in Manhattan, just blocks from the World Trade Center. "It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered," Bloomberg said at the time. Even New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly called it appropriate.

But as the cost of trying the suspects mounted to more than $200 million a year, public officials began to reverse themselves. There was the fear that New York could again become a target for terrorist attacks in retribution for the trial.

Leading the GOP criticism was former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a onetime Republican presidential aspirant, who was in charge of New York when the airliner attack took place on Sept. 11, 2001. But the Republican complaints also had a legal component, as key lawmakers argued that a civilian trial would criminalize what they saw as a war effort.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in November he believed he had the votes to block Mohammed from being tried in a civilian court.

"I think it is a big mistake to criminalize the war, to take someone you've held under the law of war as an enemy combatant for six or seven years, then put them in civilian court," Graham said in November. "It is a disaster waiting to happen."

In a prepared statement Monday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised the Obama administration for moving ahead with the military trials.

"This means with certainty that the trial will not be in New York. While not unexpected, this is the final nail in the coffin of that wrongheaded idea. I have always said that the perpetrators of this horrible crime should get the ultimate penalty, and I believe this proposal by the administration can make that happen," Schumer stated.

Mohammed allegedly proposed the concept for the Sept. 11 attacks to Osama bin Laden as early as 1996, and helped recruit and train the hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington.

The four alleged co-conspirators include Walid bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi.

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