- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2011

Backpedaling from its vow to try the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four cohorts in civilian court, the Obama administration Monday bowed to pressure and opted for a military tribunal - another blow to the president’s three-year bid to shutter the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The retreat was announced Monday by a reluctant Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who ignited the controversy in November 2009 when he said Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Waleed bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi and Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali would be tried in civilian court in New York.

The attorney general blamed Congress for the change and cited the need to move quickly for the benefit of victims of 9/11 and their family members.

“Unfortunately, since I made that decision, members of Congress have intervened and imposed restrictions blocking the administration from bringing any Guantanamo detainees to trial in the United States, regardless of the venue,” he said. “As the president has said, those unwise and unwarranted restrictions undermine our counterterrorism efforts and could harm our national security.”

Lawmakers from both parties praised the decision, and some took exception with Mr. Holder’s characterization of congressional efforts to block the trials.

“While not unexpected, this is the final nail in the coffin of that wrong-headed idea,c said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “I have always said that the perpetrators of this horrible crime should get the ultimate penalty, and I believe this proposal by the administration can make that happen.”

Republican lawmakers and other conservatives, including former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, criticized the November 2009 move as reckless and dangerous. Mr. Mukasey likened it to a return to a “Sept. 10, 2001, criminal justice model,” and said the decision was “not only unwise, but in fact based on a refusal to face the fact that what we are involved with here is a war with people who follow a religiously based ideology that calls on them to kill us.”

On his second day in office in 2009 Mr. Obama signed an executive order calling for the prison at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be closed within a year. But more than two years into his term, he has yet to make good on that pledge. Congress has opposed his efforts to find an alternative site within the U.S. to hold detainees, and some other countries have refused to take back their countrymen.

Holding military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay for high-profile detainees makes it all the more unlikely that the president will be able to close the prison during his tenure.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president is committed to bringing to justice those “suspected and accused of participating in those heinous attacks.” He added that congressional opposition to federal court trials had “created obstacles that made it very hard to overcome.” He referred further inquiries to the Justice Department.

Mr. Holder has referred the cases to the Defense Department to proceed in military commissions and directed his prosecutors to dismiss an indictment handed up under seal in New York in December 2009. He said a federal judge had granted that motion.

“We simply cannot allow a trial to be delayed any longer for the victims of the 9/11 attacks or for their family members who have waited for nearly a decade for justice,” Mr. Holder said.

But during the news conference, Mr. Holder made clear his frustration with the decision.

“Had this case proceeded in Manhattan or in an alternative venue in the United States, as I seriously explored in the past year, I am confident our justice system would have performed with the same distinction that has been its hallmark for over 200 years,” Mr. Holder said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, agreed. He said he was “disappointed” and said the nation’s justice system was “more than capable” of trying high-profile terrorism and national security cases, noting that hundreds of terrorists already have been convicted.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the decision undermines civil liberties and the rule of law, noting that Mr. Obama - in one of the first acts of his presidency [-] called a halt to the military commissions. It said while Mr. Holder had planned to move the cases to federal court, the administration “has now backtracked under pressure fr<t-7>om within and outside of Congress.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, said it was “puzzling” that Mr. Holder would blame Congress for preventing civilian trials for terrorists, adding that the administration had reached the conclusion that military tribunals for the Sept. 11 plotters were in the nation’s best interests.

“Moving forward, I hope the American people will be assured that terrorists will not be brought on our soil,” she said.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said that bringing Mohammed and his co-conspirators to the U.S. for civilian trials “would have put American lives at risk, demonstrating little had been learned from that horrific day nearly 10 years ago.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent, said in a joint statement that the reversal was the “right decision” and commended the president and attorney general for “reaching this decision, as we and many others have called for.”

“Today’s announcement, while long in coming, allows justice to be done,” they said. “The victims of 9/11 and their families deserve the president’s decision to put aside political differences and seek an accounting for the worst terrorist attacks in our nation’s history.”

Kara Rowland contributed to this report.

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