Holder: No Failure In 9/11 Prosecution

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Attorney General Eric Holder told senators Wednesday "failure is not an option" in the prosecution of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Holder explained his rationale to bring Mohammed and four other terrorism suspects to the U.S. for a civilian trial.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

For the first time, President Obama has acknowledged what his administration had only suggested before, that Guantanamo Bay prison will not close by January. Mr. Obama was speaking with Fox News while on his Asian tour.

SIEGEL: In a separate interview with NBC, the president said the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks will be convicted and put to death. He was referring to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to try him in civilian court. Mr. Obama then tempered his remarks.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm not prejudging and I'm not going to be in the courtroom. That's the job of prosecutors, the judge and the jury.

BLOCK: The topic of Guantanamo and the 9/11 trial also got a long hearing on Capitol Hill today. The attorney general testified for hours, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: The moment the hearing started, Republicans accused Attorney General Eric Holder of losing perspective. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama attacked Holder's decision to send Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others to court in New York rather than military trials.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): I believe this decision is dangerous. I believe it's misguided. I believe it is unnecessary.

SHAPIRO: Sessions charged that the attorney general was treating the war with al-Qaida as a criminal problem. Attorney General Holder said that's not true.

Attorney General ERIC HOLDER: Prosecuting the 9/11 defendants in federal court does not represent some larger judgment about whether or not we are at war. We are at war.

SHAPIRO: Fine, said Democratic Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, but what if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed stands trial and the jury acquits him.

Senator HERB KOHL (Democratic, Wisconsin): What would be your next step, I'm sure you must have talked about it?

SHAPIRO: Holder was unequivocal.

Att. Gen. HOLDER: Failure is not an option. Failure is not an option. These are cases that have to be won. I don't expect that we will have a contrary result.

SHAPIRO: Kohl called that an interesting point of view and the audience in the hearing room chuckled. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked Holder, given how unpredictable juries are, how can you say failure to convict is not an option?

Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): It just seemed to me ludicrous, you know, I'm a farmer, not a lawyer but I just want to make that observation.

SHAPIRO: Holder then said the administration has thought about what would happen if high value detainees were acquitted. And he said there are laws preventing dangerous terrorists from being released into the United States.

Att. Gen. HOLDER: And so that if - if there were the possibility that a trial was not successful that would not mean that that person would be released into our country.

SHAPIRO: This was not enough to satisfy Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): How could you be more likely to get a conviction in federal court when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has already asked to plead guilty before a military commission and be executed?

SHAPIRO: In the audience, families of 9/11 victims applauded. Kyl's questioning became more pointed and for the first time in the hearing the perpetually cool attorney general seemed to get upset.

Att. Gen. HOLDER: I'm not going to base the determination on where these cases ought to be brought on what a terrorist - what a murderer wants to do. He will not select the prosecution venue. I will select it and I have.

SHAPIRO: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he is not worried about whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will get convicted. But he still thinks trying KSM in federal court is a terrible idea.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Under domestic criminal law, the moment the person is in the hands of the United States government, they're entitled to be told they have a right to a lawyer and can remain silent. And if we go down that road we're going to make this country less safe. That is my problem with what you have done.

SHAPIRO: Holder call that a red herring.

Att. Gen. HOLDER: The notion that a conviction of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would depend on his getting Miranda rights is simply not accurate.

SHAPIRO: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois added, 9/11 plotter Zaccarias Moussoui was tried and convicted in a civilian court. Durbin quoted Republican former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani who praised the Moussoui trial as a symbol of American justice.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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Holder: 'We Need Not Cower' From Terrorism Trial

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder i

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 hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

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."

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