Attorney General Eric Holder on Sunday accused Democrats and Republicans in Congress of politicizing the trial of the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, saying it "disturbs me a great deal" that their bickering has disrupted the administration's timetable for dealing with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators.
In unusually blunt language, the attorney general expressed deep frustration with the way Congress has kicked around his trial plans. Holder announced last year that he wanted to try Mohammed and four other defendants in civilian courts in New York City, but the idea generated so much bipartisan controversy that it's all but been abandoned.
Holder, speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation," suggested Congress was toying with America's safety.
"The politicization of this issue, when we're dealing with ultimate national security issues, is something that disturbs me a great deal," Holder said. "We're dealing with the deaths of 3,000 people on September the 11th. We're dealing with the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, a person who was a key part of Al Qaeda.
"And to have Republicans and Democrats arguing about this in a political way, as opposed to dealing with the substance that we have to really focus on, is something that I think is regrettable and has resulted, I think, in the delays that we have seen," Holder said.
The attorney general claimed the administration was still reviewing its options for the appropriate forum and location for the trial. Though some lawmakers have said the military tribunals are the perfect venue, Holder said the civilian system has tried hundreds of terrorists and that it would be "very dangerous" to take that option out of the Justice Department's legal toolbox.
He also said there's a real question about whether a terrorist suspect such as Mohammed can face the death penalty if he were to plead guilty before a military commission. He said that while it's possible to impose the death penalty in a civilian setting for someone who pleads guilty, there's far less legal certainty about that possibility in a military setting.
Holder said, "people in Congress need to work with us in the Executive Branch" to find a way to bring the suspects to trial. "Justice has been denied too long," he said.
Since January, Holder has said that all options are on the table about where to try Mohammed and the four other terrorist suspects. That includes the possibility of having them go before a military commission at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they are now held.
Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in 2003, has proclaimed his involvement in the Sept. 11 plot and has said he wants to plead guilty and be executed, achieving what he views as martyrdom.
The attorney general said the Obama administration is working through issues about a site for the proceedings, taking into account the need for Congress to approve funding and trying to address concerns expressed by local officials.
"As soon as we can" resolve those issues, "we will make a decision as to where that trial will occur," Holder said.
The attorney general also said it is his hope that Congress provides money to move Guantanamo detainees to a new location in Thomson, Ill., where an underused state prison now exists.
"There is no reason to believe that people held in Guantanamo cannot be held wherever we put them in the United States. Again, very safely and very effectively," Holder said.
The need for congressional approval of the money for the project stands in the way of doing so, with Republicans and some Democrats objecting to bringing those prisoners into the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.