Moving Sept. 11 Trial May Have Political Implications

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed shortly after his capture i i

The Obama administration is rethinking whether self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, seen here soon after his capture in 2003, should be tried in civilian court. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed shortly after his capture

The Obama administration is rethinking whether self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, seen here soon after his capture in 2003, should be tried in civilian court.


Shifting the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to a military venue after months of arguing that the civilian courts are the way to go would represent a major reversal for the administration, but it's also a move that will have political consequences.

When Attorney General Eric Holder first announced that Mohammed's trial would be in the civilian courts, there was loud criticism from Republicans and some Democrats. President Obama repeatedly explained that the U.S. system of justice was appropriate and could handle such cases.

"They [the Bush administration] prosecuted the 190 folks in these Article III [civilian] courts; got convictions," he told CBS in February. "And those folks are in maximum security prisons right now. And there have been no escapes. And it is a virtue of our system that we should be proud of."

But at the same time, the administration would say things that seemed designed to appease the worries many Americans have about terrorism suspects being given legal rights.

Related NPR Stories

"Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is going to meet justice and he's going to meet his maker," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last month. "He will be brought to justice and he is likely to be executed and he is likely to be executed for the heinous crimes that he committed in killing — in masterminding the killing of 3,000 Americans."

But the political pressure kept building; now comes confirmation from the White House of internal discussions that could result in a recommendation to the president to move the trial to a military court.

The fact that such talks are even taking place is being applauded by groups that always felt a military commission was where this trial belongs.

Retired Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who is with Military Families United, says he hopes the president now realizes that "we are a nation at war and we need to treat these terrorists with the laws of armed conflict and not common criminal civilian court system rules."

But critics of any White House reversal on the issue argue that it sends the wrong signal to the world. They say it's a rude awakening for many who backed the president because they saw his view of national security as vastly different from that of President Bush.

"I think this is going to hit home for everyone that's been critical of President Obama for being different than candidate Obama," said Steve Clemons, a national security expert with the New America Foundation and creator of the Washington Note blog. "There's going to be profound disappointment in the Democratic base, and I think some irritation among independents that what they got is very different."

Of course, running for president is different from being president; that's the reality of governing. But no one expected Obama to have a communication problem.

The Brookings Institution's Darrell West says this isn't the first issue where Obama staked out a carefully crafted position but has had a hard time selling it to lawmakers and to the public. West says the danger is the cumulative effect.

"He had difficulty explaining the stimulus. There's the health care problem. He can't explain climate change very well," West said. "All these things add up to the American public to lead them to wonder where this guy is, what he wants to do, and whether the direction he wants to lead is the right direction for the country."

But for the White House the belief is that once the American public sees the trial of Mohammad and the verdict, then the process that's prompted so much debate won't matter. But the president will eventually need to explain his reasoning, and this time some of his longtime supporters will be his toughest critics.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.