WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder, rejecting concerns about security risks, announced Friday that confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged underlings will face a federal court trial in New York just blocks from the scene of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
Holder said he'd elected to forgo military trials and proceed with the first U.S. criminal prosecution of figures alleged to have been directly involved in the suicide hijacking plot eight years ago because of his complete confidence in a "successful outcome." He said he expected to ask for the death penalty.
Americans, especially family members of the 2,872 people who were killed on Sept. 11, 2001, "deserve the opportunity to see the alleged plotters of those attacks held accountable in court, an opportunity that has been too long delayed," Holder told a news conference.
The decision to attempt criminal prosecutions of the 9/11 figures set off intense debate from both ends of the political spectrum over whether the trial will make New York a magnet for terrorism, risk the release of some of the world's most dangerous terrorists because of issues such as brutal interrogation techniques used on them in secret prisons or be unfair because some or all of the defendants are mentally incompetent after years of isolation.
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Human rights groups hailed the decision, which administration officials described as a "significant step" toward fulfilling President Barack Obama's campaign promise to close the detention center at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Congressional Republicans, however, promptly accused the Obama administration of trying to return to a pre-Sept. 11 mentality of criminalizing the war on terrorism.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas warned that "bringing these dangerous individuals onto U.S. soil needlessly compromises the safety of all Americans."
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said the possibility that the accused terrorists "could be found not guilty due to some legal technicality just blocks from Ground Zero should give every American pause."
Pentagon and Justice Department officials said privately that even in the unlikely case of an acquittal, other options would enable authorities to avoid releasing the defendants into the general U.S. population.
Holder also said that he'd decided that five other Guantanamo detainees will stand trial before military commissions, including Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, who's accused of orchestrating the October 2007 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 39 others.
Also to stand trial before a military commission is Omar Ahmed Khadr, a Canadian national who is accused of killing a U.S. Army sergeant in a grenade attack in Afghanistan in 2002.
He that his first duty in deciding how to handle the Sept. 11 suspects was to follow the law and do "what's best for the American people."
"To the extent that there are political consequences, I'll just have to take my lumps. ... I think the criticism will be relatively muted."
A big obstacle could be whether an impartial jury can be impaneled so close to where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood.
Holder said that a careful jury selection process should dispel those concerns.
"I would not have authorized the bringing of these prosecutions unless I thought that the outcome ... would ultimately be successful," he said. "I will say that I have access to information that has not been publicly released that gives me great confidence that we will be successful in federal court."
He said that a grand jury indictment soon would be returned against:
_ Mohammed, who's admitted to spearheading the planning but whom U.S. interrogators subjected to simulated drowning techniques at a secret overseas prison after his capture in March 2003.
_ Ramzi Binalshibh, who was turned away at the U.S. border four times before the attacks, even offering to marry a U.S. citizen to gain access, before allegedly acting as the prime coordinator for the 19 hijackers from Germany.
_ Waleed bin Attash, who the U.S. government says was intended to be a hijacker until he was captured in Yemen earlier in 2001.
_ Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi, the alleged paymaster, suspected of managing the funding for the hijackings and wiring money to the hijackers.
_ Ali Abd al Aziz Ali, a Pakistan-based operative who allegedly transferred money to the U.S. operatives and facilitated their travel from Pakistan to the United States.
All five have been held by the United States for years, first in CIA secret prisons, and then since September 2006 at Guantanamo.
Asked about the decision at a Tokyo news conference before Holder's announcement, Obama said: "I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice. The American people will insist on it and my administration will insist on it."
The decision came after federal prosecutors demonstrated that they could overcome huge legal obstacles in the related federal court prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested in Minnesota while he was learning to fly a 747 jumbo jet less than a month before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty to capital crimes in 2005 and was spared a death sentence only by a single holdout on the jury after a dramatic trial in 2006. No evidence surfaced that he knew of the Sept. 11 plot.
He's appealing his sentence to life in a "Supermax" prison, however, on the grounds that he was denied the right to pick his attorney and was barred access to classified information that might have aided in his defense.
Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Holder's decision, saying that the federal courts have proved "time and time again" that the they're "capable of trying high-profile terrorism and national security cases."
Obama wants terrorism suspects to face trial in traditional federal courts and to reserve military commission trials for other cases. His administration earlier this year moved a Tanzanian detainee — accused as a co-conspirator in al Qaida's 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa — to Manhattan for trial.
Kirk Lippold, the former commander of the USS Cole, who's now a senior military fellow at Military Families United, praised the decision to refer Nashiri to a military trial.
"It is certainly a step in the right direction for the Obama administration to at last recognize the value and legitimacy of military commissions in dealing with the remaining ... detainees," he said.
Including the Sept. 11 suspects, there were 215 detainees at Guantanamo on Friday. Of those, six now have been authorized to face military commissions -- the five Holder named and Mohammed Kamin, who has a pre-trial hearing scheduled on charges he gave material support to al Qaida.
(Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this article from Miami.)
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