WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Wednesday strongly defended its decision to try the alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in a civilian New York court, but faced criticism from Republican senators who called it a “perversion” of justice that will risk freeing some of the world’s most notorious terrorists.
President Barack Obama supported such a trial in interviews with several U.S. television networks before leaving Beijing for South Korea. Casting aside any pretense of assumption of innocence and sounding like the nation’s prosecutor-in-chief, Obama said those offended by the constitutional protections being given to Khalid Sheikh 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 back in Washington, some Republican lawmakers sparred with Attorney General Eric Holder over his announcement Friday that he was transferring the case of the five men from the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to a federal courthouse just blocks from ground zero.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said the transfer to New York is proof the Obama administration is wrongly “criminalizing” a war on terrorism in which those captured should be tried as enemy combatants in war crimes tribunals. Others said Mohammed will 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 City 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 will only intensify in the months or even years of legal wrangling before it actually comes to fruition.
Several family members of those killed during the attacks on New York sat directly behind Holder and held up photographs of loved ones. A few cheered when Sen. John 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 Grassley, R-Iowa, told Holder 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 Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly both have supported the administration, 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.
In more than three hours of testimony, Holder said he was convinced that a civilian court will convict Mohammed, two top lieutenants, an al-Qaida 9/11 paymaster and Mohammed’s nephew, all of whom are accused of participating in the plot. And he said federal authorities in New York have 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.