MIAMI — Confessed terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other alleged 9-11 plotters will face a federal trial in New York City, Attorney General Eric Holder said Friday in an announcement that left intact the war court at Guantanamo.
Charges against the alleged al-Qaida kingpin have not yet been filed in Manhattan, N.Y, the scene of the attack on the World Trade Center.
But the decision to bring to civilian court the mass murder case of nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, underscored the White House’s determination to ultimately empty the prison camps in southeast Cuba.
“They will be brought to New York to answer to their alleged crimes in a courtroom just blocks away from where the Twin Towers once stood,” Holder said.
He urged prosecutors to seek the death penalty, and swept aside security fears.
Still, the announcement unleashed a wave of political protest. Republican opponents accused the White House of jeopardizing a near-certain military conviction, potentially exposing U.S. intelligence secrets, and, worse, risking a legal loophole that could free enemies on the streets of America.
War court critics railed at the White House for continuing to use the war court at Guantanamo, calling it inferior justice despite recent congressional reforms.
The 9-11 case has been mired in controversy in part because the CIA reportedly secretly subjected Mohammed to waterboarding 183 times — an interrogation technique the Obama administration calls torture.
“Islamo-fascist terrorism is a threat to our national security and should be treated accordingly,” said Florida’s GOP junior senator, George LeMieux. “The men who planned and executed the 9-11 attacks are not bank robbers — they are dedicated to destroying our way of life.”
Holder countered that, in authorizing two-track trials that send some Guantanamo cases to federal court, the 9-11 case would stand the scrutiny of a civilian judge and jury.
“I have access to information that has not been publicly released that gives me great confidence that we will be successful in the prosecution of these cases,” he said.
Mohammed and his co-accused have bragged about “the fall of the towers on the blessed 9-11” in letter to their Army judge at Guantanamo.
They allegedly directed, financed and trained the 19 hijackers who piloted airplanes into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001.
President George W. Bush ordered the 9-11 accused and other high-value detainees moved to Cuba from secret CIA custody in 2006 to go before his administration’s special tribunals.
But President Barack Obama, while in Tokyo on a trip to Asia, said the 9-11 accused “will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice” in civilian court. “The American people will insist on it and my administration will insist on it.”
Administration officials said, broadly, that they would mostly use federal court for terror suspects accused of crimes on U.S. soil and reserve military commission trials for more classic battlefield or overseas cases.
As if signaling that policy, Holder announced five military cases would go forward at Guantanamo because no U.S. site has been chosen yet for the war crimes trials.
He approved reactivation of the death penalty prosecution of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Yemeni man and former CIA detainee who is accused of conspiring in the October 2000 al-Qaida attack that killed 17 American sailors on the USS Cole.
Al-Nashiri, like Mohammed, was waterboarded by the CIA, and his volunteer civilian lawyer accused the Obama administration of subjecting him to second-class justice.
The FBI investigated the Cole bombing “as a criminal case,” said criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander of Albuquerque, N.M. “The fact that this is going to a commission is a travesty. They don’t have the evidence to convict him in a real court.”
There were no immediate plans to move Mohammed or any of the other accused to U.S. soil.
By law, the White House must notify Congress 45 days before a Guantanamo transfer to U.S. trial.