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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four other Guantanamo detainees accused in the 2001 attacks will be tried in federal court in New York.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four other Guantanamo detainees accused in the 2001 attacks will be tried in federal court in New York. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday fought back against criticism that trying accused Sept. 11 terrorists in New York City poses a risk, saying that U.S. courts have safely tried terrorists, and that Americans should not "cower" in anticipation of the trials.
Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder said terrorists — including those responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — have been prosecuted in the federal courts for years. He also said more than 300 convicted international and domestic terrorists remain in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
"We need not cower in the face of this enemy," Holder said. "Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is sturdy, our resolve is firm, and our people are ready." He added that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police Commissioner Ray Kelly believe the upcoming trials can be held safely.
But Jeff Sessions, the committee's ranking Republican, was unrelenting on the issue. "I believe this decision is dangerous. I believe it's misguided. I believe it's unnecessary," the Alabama senator said.
Asked several times what would happen if a suspect were acquitted, Holder replied, "Failure is not an option." He later said acquittal does not mean a suspect would be released into the United States.
Last week, Holder announced that accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others would be transferred from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to New York, where they will be prosecuted for their alleged roles in the 2001 attacks.
At the same time, Holder said five other Guantanamo detainees would be tried by military tribunals. The five include Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, who is accused of masterminding the 2000 attack on the USS Cole warship in Yemen; and Canadian Omar Khadr, accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.
The actual transfer of the suspects to New York is weeks away. The transfers are a key step in President Obama's pledge to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which currently houses some 215 detainees.
Holder said the administration has made significant progress toward shutting down the facility, but the president announced Wednesday that it would not be possible to meet the Jan. 22 goal. In Beijing, Obama said he believes the prison can be closed later in 2010.
"We are on a path and a process where I would anticipate that Guantanamo will be closed next year," Obama said during an interview that will be aired Wednesday on Fox News Channel's Special Report with Bret Baier.
In addition to the 10 detainees named Friday, Holder is expected to send others to trials and commissions in the United States. Still, other detainees are expected to be released to other countries. President Obama has said some are too dangerous to be released and cannot be put on trial, and those detainees will continue to be imprisoned.
On Wednesday, Holder said it's time that the Sept. 11 and USS Cole killers were brought to justice.
"For eight years, justice has been delayed for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. It has been delayed even further for the victims of the attack on the USS Cole," Holder said. "By bringing prosecutions in both our courts and military commissions, by seeking the death penalty, by holding these terrorists responsible for their actions, we are finally taking ultimate steps toward justice."
Saying the Sept. 11 attacks were both acts of war and horrific federal crimes, Holder said prosecutors had two avenues for prosecution: military tribunal and federal court.
The attorney general said he weighed the merits of trying Mohammed and the four others by tribunal, but he decided the case would have a greater chance of success if it were tried in federal court.
"At the end of the day, it was clear to me that the venue in which we are most likely to obtain justice for the American people is in federal court," he said.
Holder's answer brought an antagonistic response from Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who asked how a federal trial could be more successful when Mohammed had said he would plead guilty before a military tribunal.
"How could you be more likely to get a conviction in federal court, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has already asked to plead guilty before military commission and be executed?" Kyl asked — a question that brought applause.
"He will not select the prosecution venue. I will select it, and I have," Holder snapped back.
Critics also have said a trial would give Mohammed a platform from which to spout ideological rhetoric, but Holder noted that no one complained that Mohammed's rantings during last year's military commissions were a threat to democracy.
During the commissions, Mohammed declared the proceedings an "inquisition" and said he wanted to become a martyr.
"I'm not scared of what KSM [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] will have to say at trial — and no one else needs to be either," Holder told lawmakers.
Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) backed Holder's decision to try Mohammed in New York.
"They committed murder here in the United States, and we'll seek justice here in the United States," Leahy said. "We will not be afraid. We will still go forward, and we will prosecute them."