House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton on Friday said the Obama administration may be making a big mistake by trying in U.S. criminal courts the men accused of planning the Sept. 11 attacks, becoming the highest-ranking Democrat to publicly question the decision announced last week by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
Mr. Skelton, Missouri Democrat, said the decision “raises many serious questions” and said Congress set up military commissions specifically to handle the judicial cases of detainees from the war on terror.
“As a former prosecutor, I am not yet convinced that the right decision was made in these cases, nor that the presumption in favor of federal criminal trials over military tribunals for these detainees should continue,” Mr. Skelton said in a letter to Mr. Holder and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. He asked for a full briefing on the decision.
Mr. Holder last week announced that five men accused of planning the Sept. 11 attacks, including al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, would be transferred from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to New York City to stand trial — just blocks from the onetime site of the World Trade Center. Defending the decision this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the attorney general said some detainees would still face trial in military commissions, but he said he has determined that the five stand the best chance of a conviction in civilian courts.
As chairman of the House committee, Mr. Skelton’s opposition could be a problem for Mr. Obama. Many Republicans and some relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks have harshly criticized the move.
On Afghanistan, Mr. Skelton already has made clear that he wants Mr. Obama to follow the request of his top general in the region and send tens of thousands of new troops to help fight the war there. Mr. Obama is still considering his options in Afghanistan, and a decision is now not expected until after Thanksgiving.