WASHINGTON – Yielding to political opposition, the Obama administration gave up Monday on trying avowed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged henchmen in civilian federal court in New York and will prosecute them instead before military commissions.
The families of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks have waited almost a decade for justice, and "it must not be delayed any longer," Attorney General Eric Holder told a news conference at the Justice Department.
In November 2009, Holder had announced the plan for a New York trial blocks from where the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks destroyed the World Trade Center. That idea was thwarted by widespread opposition from Republicans and even some Democrats, particularly in New York.
Congress passed legislation that prohibits bringing any detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States.
Monday, the attorney general called those congressional restrictions unwise and unwarranted and said a legislative body cannot make prosecutorial decisions.
Although President Barack Obama made a campaign pledge to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba, Holder indicated that isn't going to happen any time soon because of congressional restrictions.
"We must face a simple truth: those restrictions are unlikely to be repealed in the immediate future," Holder said.
Even though closing the Guantanamo jail remains the administration's formal goal, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama supported Holder's decision to move the 9/11 trial from a civilian court to military tribunals.
Most Republicans applauded the turnabout, but Holder said he is still convinced that his earlier decision was the right one. The Justice Department had been prepared to bring "a powerful case" in civilian court, he said. Penalties for terrorists in civilian trials have so far been harsher than those decreed by military commissions.
In New York on Monday, the government unsealed an indictment that outlined its case. It charged Mohammed and the others with 10 counts relating to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The indictment said that in late August 2001, as the terrorists in the United States made final preparations, Mohammed was notified about the date of the attack and relayed that to al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
The Justice Department got a judge to dismiss the indictment Monday because of the change in trial plans.
Some 9/11 family members applauded the change to military trials.
"We're delighted," said Alexander Santora, 74, father of deceased firefighter Christopher A. Santora. The father called the accused terrorists "demonic human beings, they've already said that they would kill us if they could, if they got the chance they would do it again."
Nancy Nee, whose firefighter brother George Cain died at the World Trade Center, said that the five men are "war criminals as far as I'm concerned and I think that a military trial is the right thing to do."
But Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he is disappointed with the decision. "I believe that our justice system, which is the envy of the world, is more than capable of trying high-profile terrorism and national security cases," said Leahy.
Republican lawmakers welcomed the shift.
"It's unfortunate that it took the Obama administration more than two years to figure out what the majority of Americans already know: that 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not a common criminal, he's a war criminal," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican senator on Judiciary, said the president's "improvident campaign pledge to shutter Gitmo was built on the naive premise that softening America's image would somehow soften our enemies' resolve." Sessions called Holder's announcement a "retreat" and said he hopes it marks "a real policy change from President Obama."
The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the administration. Cases prosecuted in military commissions now "are sure to be subject to continuous legal challenges and delays, and their outcomes will not be seen as legitimate. That is not justice," said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys said that "the military commission system is not about seeking justice as much as it is about obtaining convictions."
Holder said it is unclear whether the five men could receive the death penalty if they plead guilty in military court. It will be up to the Pentagon to decide whether the military commission trial will be held at Guantanamo, where the defendants are held, or elsewhere. Also undetermined is whether one or several trials will be needed.
The political fight over where to try the alleged 9/11 plotters is part of a bigger battle in which Republicans want no detainees from Guantanamo Bay brought into the United States.
In a letter sent Monday, Holder re-assured Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., that the administration has no intention of moving Guantanamo Bay detainees into a shuttered Illinois prison. Originally, the administration intended for Gitmo detainees to be housed there as part of a plan to close Guantanamo Bay.
During a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay in 2007, Mohammed confessed to planning the Sept. 11 attacks and a chilling string of other terror plots. Many of the schemes, including a previously undisclosed plan to kill several former U.S. presidents, were never carried out or were foiled by international counterterror authorities. Mohammed made clear that al-Qaida wanted to down a second trans-Atlantic aircraft during would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid's failed operation later in 2001.
The other four alleged co-conspirators are Waleed bin Attash, a Yemeni who allegedly ran an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan; Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni who allegedly helped find flight schools for the hijackers; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, accused of helping nine of the hijackers travel to the United States and sending them $120,000 for expenses and flight training, and Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, a Saudi accused of helping the hijackers with money, Western clothing, traveler's checks and credit cards.
Mohammed allegedly proposed the idea for the Sept. 11 attacks to Osama bin Laden as early as 1996, obtained funding from bin Laden, oversaw the operation and trained the hijackers in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mohammed was born in Pakistan's Baluchistan province and raised in Kuwait.
Holder's earlier plan for a New York trial was initially embraced by city officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said: "It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered."
But on Monday, Bloomberg applauded the decision to use military tribunals instead.
"I've always thought that's more appropriate, and while we would have provided the security if we had to here in New York City, you know being spared the expense is good for us," Bloomberg told reporters at a news conference on another topic. "I happen to think that it's probably more appropriate to do it in a secure area with a military tribunal."
Former Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani opposed holding the trial in New York.
AP reporter Larry Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.