WASHINGTON -- Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is trying to prevent the Obama administration from holding criminal trials in civilian courts for the alleged Sept. 11 plotters instead of bringing them before military commissions.
Graham, who helped craft the 2006 law that established the military commissions, said Friday that he'd attached an amendment to an appropriations bill that would prohibit the Obama administration from spending money on the prosecution and trial of the accused terrorists before U.S. civilian federal judges.
"Khalid Sheik Mohammed needs to be tried in a military tribunal," Graham said. "He's not a common criminal. He took up arms against the United States."
Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is being held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, along with four other alleged plotters of the jetliner strikes that killed nearly 3,000 Americans.
The Obama administration is studying whether the plotters should be brought to the U.S. to face trial. Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department's general counsel, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee in July that the administration preferred trying some of the Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts, but hadn't decided where to hold trials for the accused 9/11 plotters.
"It is the administration view that when you direct violence on innocent civilians in the continental United States, it may be appropriate that that person be brought to justice in a civilian public forum in the continental United States," Johnson said then.
Federal prosecutors in at least four different U.S. attorneys' offices in Virginia and New York are vying to bring the alleged Sept. 11 conspirators to court for what would be among the most high-profile criminal trials in the nation's history.
Earlier this week, Democratic leaders in Congress agreed to drop provisions of another bill that would have blocked funding for transferring any Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. for trial.
Graham, an Air Force Reserve colonel and the only member of Congress who's served active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, said trying the 9/11 plotters in federal courts, instead of before the military tribunals, would be a grave mistake.
"I've been warning the administration not to criminalize the war on terror," Graham said. "These guys should be tried in military court, where we can protect classified evidence better. These people aren't robbing liquor stores. They're part of terrorist organizations that are waging war against the United States."
Open trials in federal courts would become media circuses, Graham said.
"It would be a nightmare," he said. "It would become a zoo, and it would change the theory of how we detain these people."
Such trials, Graham said, would make surrounding communities terrorist targets.
Graham's amendment blocking funds for civilian prosecutions and trials is part of the annual measure to fund the U.S. departments of justice, commerce, state and other federal agencies.
The Senate took up the appropriations bill Thursday. Graham said he hopes to force a vote on his amendment as early as next week.
Aides at the White House, the Pentagon and in the Justice Department declined to comment on Graham's amendment.
The amendment reads in part: "None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available for the Department of Justice by this Act may be obligated or expended to commence or continue the prosecution in (a civilian) court of the United States of an individual suspected of planning, authorizing, organizing, committing or aiding the attacks on the United States and its citizens that occurred on September 11, 2001."
"As a matter of policy, we don't generally comment on proposed or pending legislation," said Cynthia O. Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman.
Obama has pledged to shutter Guantanamo by January, a deadline that Graham said he doubts the president will meet.
Attorney General Eric Holder is overseeing a Cabinet-level task force of prosecutors, Pentagon lawyers and other senior officials to determine how to handle the more than 220 detainees at Guantanamo.
Decisions on many of those cases are expected by mid-November.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy's national security team at Nukes & Spooks