Sept. 11 Cases Move From Military To Civilian Courts

The Justice Department has decided to try the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York. Until now, military commissions at the Guantanamo Naval Base have been handling the legal case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has admitted to planning the attacks. Now, the Obama administration will hand the case to the federal criminal courts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

It is an overused phrase: the trial of the century. But today, it fit. The setting this morning was the Justice Department. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the alleged mastermind of the September 11th attacks and four of his codefendants will be brought to the U.S. to stand trial in a civilian court.

Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (Department of Justice): They will be brought to New York to answer for their alleged crimes in a courthouse just blocks away from where the Twin Towers once stood.

BLOCK: The attorney general's decision has enormous implications, both for the Obama administration's plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and for the American legal system.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has been following the story, and she has this report.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: The attorney general said there's really only one punishment for a crime like the September 11th attacks. So he announced he will seek the death penalty against the five men accused in the attacks, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who admitted being the mastermind of the plot.

Atty. Gen. HOLDER: These were extraordinary crimes, and so we will seek maximum penalties.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The Justice Department will seek those penalties in a civilian court, the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, and as the attorney general said, not so far away from where the thousands died. Until now, Guantanamo detainees have been almost exclusively tried in a special military court with its own rules of evidence and procedure. Critics have said the military tribunals are, almost by design, unfair to the defendants. Holder made clear that he feels the defendants can get a fair trial in a civilian court. He also made clear that he thinks prosecutors will be able to win convictions. President Obama very carefully expressed the same confidence.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Here's how the process could work. The attorney general said that the five men would transferred from Guantanamo Bay to New York for their trial, though he didn't say exactly when that would be. The Federal Government has to notify state lawmakers 45 days before a Guantanamo prisoner can be transferred. Holder said he's already spoken to some New York officials, but it's unclear whether that meant the 45-day clock had started. If it has, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other accused plotters could be in New York before Christmas. Holder had no illusions about what his decision to try the men in New York could bring.

Atty. Gen. HOLDER: I think the criticism will be relatively muted. Having said that, I'm sure we'll hear a lot of criticism.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And Holder was right. Within minutes of his announcement, critics weighed in. The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said the attorney general's decision would put Americans unnecessarily at risk. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona said the trial would give al-Qaida a window into U.S. intelligence sources.

Another concern is that the civilian legal system will permit a 9/11 terror suspect to go free, perhaps on a technicality. The attorney general tried to tamp down such fears.

Atty. Gen. HOLDER: I'm a prosecutor myself. I've looked at the evidence. I've considered the problems that these cases present. And I'm quite confident that we're going to be successful in the prosecution efforts.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There's a reason he's confident. The federal courts have an increasingly good record on trying terrorism cases. Karen Greenberg is the executive director of the Law and Security Center at New York University, which, among other things, tracks terrorism convictions in this country.

Ms. KAREN GREENBERG (Executive Director, Law and Security Center, New York University): The conviction rate on suspected terrorists who have been charged actually with terrorism as opposed to a lesser crime and how have had a domestic target is, I believe, 100 percent.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which is, of course, what the Justice Department is counting on.

Dina Temple Raston, NPR News, New York.

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