In Wake of Venue Dispute, White House Defends Use of Civilian Courts for Terror Trials

Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will receive a fair trial in New York or any other city, and critics of civilian trials have a short memory, easily forgetting that Zacarais Moussoui and other terrorists were convicted in federal courtrooms, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday.

"We've all seen cases that have gone through that system and ended in the conviction of those that committed terrorism," Gibbs said at the White House briefing.

"Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a plane over the Atlantic, in an operation masterminded and financed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was brought to justice in a courtroom in Boston; Zacarias Moussaoui, the 20th hijacker, was brought to justice in a courtroom about 10 miles from where I stand, heralded by the former mayor of New York's reverence for our justice system, after having testified in that trial," he said.

However, trial justice may not be what will happen, say those same critics, who note that Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, pleaded guilty to his crimes before ever reaching a courtroom in Boston.

Over the weekend, Gibbs said Mohammed will feel the full force of the federal court system.

"Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is going to meet justice and he's going to meet his maker," Gibbs told CNN's "State of the Union." "He will be brought to justice and he's likely to be executed for the heinous crimes that he committed in killing and masterminding the killing of 3,000 Americans. That you can be sure of."

That's a similar claim to one made in November when Attorney General Eric Holder testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in defense of federal trial over a military tribunal, saying the administration believes prosecutors have enough untainted evidence to obtain a conviction.

President Obama also weighed in shortly after the hearing.

"I don't think it will be offensive at all when he's convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him," Obama said in an interview with NBC News.

With a series of assurances like that, some military trial supporters say they worry a jury would be prejudiced due to the overflow of information regarding the trials, and Mohammed and others will not receive the same protections other civilian defendants are afforded, including the right to be innocent until proven guilty.

"The whole point, according to the administration, to trying him in federal court, was to insure that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had the constitutional protections that American citizens would get, including the presumption of innocence. And by coming out and publicly saying things like he will be convicted, he will be executed, it really goes against what the administration has said is the very purpose for trying him in federal court in the first place," said Thomas Dupree, a former Department of Justice official under President George W. Bush.

The potential trial for Mohammed and perhaps other accused terrorists on U.S. soil has provoked howls from administration, critics but the president has said he is dedicated to making Americans feel safe about the trials and his commitment to close Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

"We've tried a lot of terrorists in our courts, we have them in our federal prisons, they've never escaped and these folks are no different. but it's been one of those things that's been subject to a lot of, in some cases, you know, pretty rank politics," Obama said during a question and answer with YouTube at the White House on Monday.

"By closing Guantanamo we can regain the moral high ground in our battle against these terrorist organizations. There's been no bigger propaganda weapon for many of these extremists than pointing to Guantanamo and saying that we don't live up to our own ideals and that's something I strongly believe we have to resist, even if it has some costs to it and even if it's not always the most politically popular thing to do," he said.

Last week, stories began circulating that the Obama administration had dropped its plans to try Mohammed and others in New York City, a move New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg commended. The White House insisted Monday that all those reports were wrong, and that every city is on the table.

However, Gibbs made it clear that regardless of the civil venue, the administration would not go into these trials unless they thought they'd win.

"We wouldn't go to trial and indict him if we didn't feel like we had a case that would lead to a conviction. And I don't have any problem saying that I think that conviction would lead to the death sentence."

Even with a potential death sentence, former CIA Director Michael Hayden warned that recent terror attempts like that by Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is not the end, but the beginning of more potential threats and warned against complacency.

"Abdulmutullab is not an isolated extremist. He is the tip of the speak of a complex Al Qaeda plot to kill Americans in our homeland," Hayden wrote in an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post.

As to rancor in Congress over civilian trials, Gibbs said that's a short-term memory problem, best fixed by looking at history.

"I do see now that you have some members of Congress rethinking their, what appears to be, more than eight years support of that type of justice in the short term, and what I think is a continuation of the type of games that people in this country are tired of."