Sept. 11 Suspects To Be Tried In U.S.

Five Sept. 11 suspects, including the alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will be brought to the U.S. to stand trial, the Justice Department will announce Friday. NPR has learned that Attorney General Eric Holder has decided that the suspects should be tried in the Southern District of New York.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

The alleged mastermind of the September 11th attacks will be brought to the city where the World Trade Center once stood. The Justice Department will place Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in New York. Prosecutors will also try four other suspects linked to the attacks.

INSKEEP: They will all be tried in the Southern District of New York. That district includes lower Manhattan, the area filled with smoke and ashes on 9/11.

NPRs Dina Temple-Raston is covering this story. Dina, Good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Whats the plan here?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they are going to be moved from Guantanamo to New York, these five men. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators of the 9/11 attacks. And sources tell us that the Attorney General, Eric Holder, has decided that they all should be tried in regular U.S. Federal Court, and then all five men should stand trial in, as you said, the Southern District of New York which is in Manhattan.

INSKEEP: So the decision is to go with a civilian trial rather than a military commission or military trial of some kind. Why do this now?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they didnt have much choice, to be frank. A military trial was already underway for these five in Guantanamo Bay. And then the administration had asked for a delay, because they wanted to decide whether they wanted to move suspects into the civilian court, and they only had until Monday to tell the judge what they decided. So the clock was ticking.

INSKEEP: Well now Dina, it certainly makes emotional sense to try this case in New York City where the most deadly of the attacks happened, but there must have been other options of prosecutors wanted them; like Virginia where the Pentagon was or Pennsylvania where one of the planes went down. Why New York?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there were a lot of different U.S. attorneys who were vying for these cases, but there were some practical reasons to send it to the Southern District. I mean, the feeling is that in New York and specifically that federal court, theyve done a lot of these kind of complicated terrorism cases before.

Theres a grand jury in the Southern District that has already indicted Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for another terrorism plot. Back in 1996, he was implicated in a plan to explode 12 commercial jets over the Pacific. Thats known as the Bojinka Plot and a federal jury in New York brought the indictment against him. And now, conceivably, the 9/11 charges could be added to that. Thats what sources are telling us could happen, though prosecutors could simply ask a grand jury to bring a new indictment against him, and maybe an indictment for all five men together.

INSKEEP: And I suppose, we should also mention the Southern District of New York is also working on the case of another Guantanamo detainee.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly, yes. It is an Tanzanian named Ahmed Guilani, and he has been charged in the East Africa Embassy bombings. And his trial is supposed to start next fall, September 2010.

INSKEEP: Dina Temple-Raston, is there going to be political resistance to this decision to bring accused 9/11 terrorists into the United States?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, there already has been. There are tempers on both sides of the aisle. Some members of Congress believe that this will harm national security. Others just dont want these guys in the U.S. So theyre going to have to deal with that as they push for these trials. You know, theyre supposed to be a 45-day notification period. Basically, theyre going to have to tell members of Congress who are going to have to accept these guys 45 days in advance when theyre coming, and that could allow them to ramp up some opposition.

INSKEEP: And let me just ask about an even tougher issue here, because this is an issue to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on trial in a civilian court. An American court with American civilian rules, and this is a man who was waterboarded 183 times. What difficulties are raised by bringing in a man to a civilian court when some of the evidence against him would appear to have been obtained by torture?

TEMPLE-RASTON: No, you are exactly right. And this is one of the really big issues here, although in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he actually admitted, before being tortured, that he was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. So that makes him slightly different than some of these other detainees who have been tortured, who maybe only admitted to something after they were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques, or torture.

INSKEEP: So so, prosecutor are going to be saying, we waterboarded this man, or someone waterboarded this man, the U.S. waterboarded this man to get evidence about other accused terrorists about al-Qaida, but he actually, before that, admitted to the crime with which we are trying him here. Thats what theyll say.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I assume thats what theyll say, and of course, the defense will say, the fact that he was tortured at all is a mitigating circumstance that - that changes the game. But thats what will be argued out in the trial, I think.

INSKEEP: Now, you're also following the decision about yet another accused terrorist. What have you learned about him?

TEMPLE-RASTON: This is a man named Abd al-Nashiri. He was the accused mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole. Remember, that was the Navy ship that was attacked in Yemen in 2000. He has been described by the U.S. government as a 15-year associate of Osama bin Laden and a mastermind of various attacks at sea. And the Justice Department is going to announce, we understand, later today, that he will be tried in a military commission for the bombing of the USS Cole. You remember, 17 U.S. sailors died in that attack.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. And, again, the news here: we have one man accused in the bombing of the USS Cole who will be tried before a military commission. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the World Trade Center attacks and four others linked to those attacks will be tried in civilian court in New York.

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Attorney General: Sept. 11 Suspects To Face NYC Trial

Attorney General Eric Holder i i

hide captionAttorney General Eric Holder speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Friday, Nov. 13, 2009, where he announced that the alleged attacker of USS Cole and four others to be tried by military commission.

Alex Brandon/AP
Attorney General Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Friday, Nov. 13, 2009, where he announced that the alleged attacker of USS Cole and four others to be tried by military commission.

Alex Brandon/AP
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, is seen shortly after his capture in 2003. i i

hide captionKhalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, is seen shortly after his capture during a raid in Pakistan on March 1, 2003.

AP
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, is seen shortly after his capture in 2003.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, is seen shortly after his capture during a raid in Pakistan on March 1, 2003.

AP

The alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four other men suspected of playing a role in the attacks will be brought to New York to stand trial in a civilian court, Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday.

At a news conference, Holder said he anticipates seeking the death penalty against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other suspects. Five additional terrorism suspects will be tried by military commissions, he said.

"After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11 will finally face justice," Holder said. Those facing civilian trials will be brought "to a courthouse a few blocks away from the courthouse where the Twin Towers once stood," he added.

The four others are Walid bin-Atash, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa al-Hawsawi.

The decision on how to handle these detainees comes just days before a deadline for the Justice Department to decide how it would prosecute a number of Guantanamo detainees awaiting trial. The prosecution of the alleged Sept. 11 attackers had started in a military commission at Guantanamo months ago. Then the Obama administration asked for a delay so that it could study whether to keep them in the military legal system or move them to civilian courts.

Now their trial will be conducted in a civilian court.

"This is clearly a vote of confidence in the criminal justice system to handle even the most delicate terrorism issues," said New York University law professor Sam Rascoff. "It is simultaneously a repudiation of the view that terrorists needed to be detained and tried in a parallel system that offered fewer rights and less transparency."

In his early days in office, President Obama vowed to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by January 2010. The president may not meet his own deadline. But moving high-visibility prisoners out of Cuba and to third countries or into the U.S. justice system signals that the administration is trying to make good on his promise.

Moving Prisoners To U.S. Courts

For some time now, civil liberties groups have been pushing for the Obama administration to prosecute Guantanamo detainees in the federal justice system. They maintain that prosecutions in the military-commission system ended up being something less than total justice because they see the rules governing the commission as favoring the prosecution.

The fact that the Sept. 11 suspects will end up in a New York court is not entirely surprising. The lead prosecutor for the military commissions, Capt. John Murphy, told reporters in September that four different U.S. attorneys' offices in New York, Washington and Virginia all wanted the opportunity to try the five.

Proponents of moving the suspects to U.S. courts point to the nearly 200 cases involving international terrorism that have gone through the criminal justice system here. Detractors have said that a federal court could have trouble handling classified evidence, foreign intelligence and evidence that was gathered during an armed conflict.

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey has been an outspoken opponent of moving the trials into civilian federal courts. He has said the costs and security complications for such cases would be enormous. He said housing the alleged terrorists in the United States would threaten national security, and a public trial would compromise U.S. intelligence sources.

Why New York?

White House lawyers and a task force that has been advising President Obama and Attorney General Holder had made clear that they wanted to try the Guantanamo terrorism suspects in federal courts whenever possible. And New York's Southern District has more experience with trying sensitive terrorism cases than any other federal court in the U.S.

What's more, a grand jury in the Southern District has already indicted Mohammed for another terrorism plot. In 1996, he was implicated in a plan to explode 12 commercial jets over the Pacific Ocean. A federal grand jury in New York brought that indictment, and the Sept. 11 charges could be added to it. Prosecutors could also simply come up with a new indictment.

The Southern District of New York is already working on the case of another Guantanamo detainee. A Tanzanian named Ahmed Guilani has been charged in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings. His trial is supposed to start next fall.

Challenges Ahead

The attorney general's decision will anger some members of Congress. Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain, James Webb and Joseph Lieberman had sponsored a measure that would block the Justice Department from spending any of its money on prosecuting suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks who are being held at Guantanamo. The opposition is bipartisan — Graham and McCain are Republicans, Webb is a Democrat and Lieberman is an independent.

But the Senate voted to table the measure after Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Holder wrote a letter a couple of weeks ago saying that the government needed the option of having trials by military commission or civilian courts.

Once the Justice Department announces where the suspects will be tried, they have to provide at least 45 days' notice to the states that will be involved. That could give people who are against moving the detainees here for trial some time to mobilize. Those notifications to the states haven't been made yet, so the 45-day clock hasn't started. Sources say the attorney general has talked to some of the relevant U.S. attorneys.

Even after the decision is final and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's case is moved to the federal courts, many other serious questions will remain. How will the government show a jury classified terrorism-related evidence linked to the Sept. 11 attacks? Will the case become a referendum on harsh interrogation practices? Mohammed was waterboarded repeatedly while in custody. That will surely be one more issue to come before the court.

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