- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Yielding to political opposition, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Monday that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged henchmen will be referred to the system of military commissions for trial rather than to a civilian federal court in New York.

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,” Mr. Holder told a news conference.

After months of delay, the administration finally backed off Mr. Holder Jr.’s November 2009 announcement that the five would be tried in a courthouse just blocks from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan that was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. That announcement created intense political opposition among Republicans and ultimately even among some Democrats, particularly in New York.

A federal law enforcement official who earlier spoke on condition of anonymity said it will be up to the U.S. military to decide whether the island prison at Guantanamo Bay, where the five are held, will be the site for trial or whether the five will be tried together or separately.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney referred questions about the decision to the Justice Department, but at one point during the questioning, Mr. Carney answered, “Yes,” when asked whether Mr. Obama agreed with Mr. Holder’s decision.

Republicans wasted no time Monday in criticizing the delay.

“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 Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, who is House Judiciary Committee chairman.

Republican critics have roundly assailed the administration, first for the decision in late 2009 to try the men in New York, then for a long delay in making a decision on whether to have them face military commission justice instead.

One key lawmaker, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in November he believed he had the votes in the Senate to block Sheikh Mohammed from a civilian court.

“I think it is a big mistake to criminalize the war, to take someone you’ve held under the law of war as an enemy combatant for six or seven years, then put them in civilian court,” Mr. Graham said in November. “It is a disaster waiting to happen.”

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 December, Congress barred any such transfers to the United States. In several other congressional votes last year, many Democrats joined Republicans in opposing bringing Gitmo prisoners stateside for trial or detention. The administration believes some detainees cannot be brought to trial, in many cases because of evidence tainted by harsh interrogation tactics, and must be held for years.

The Justice Department is requesting $66.9 million in the proposed 2012 budget to house regular federal inmates at a shuttered Illinois prison. Originally, the administration intended for Gitmo detainees to be housed there as part of a plan to close Guantanamo Bay.

Congressional Republicans are suspicious that the administration really still wants to move detainees to the Illinois facility and could put the new request under a shadow despite top-level assurances that the money is for renovations to accommodate traditional federal inmates.

The four alleged co-conspirators are Waleed bin Attash, a Yemeni who allegedly ran an al Qaeda 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.

Sheikh Mohammed allegedly proposed the concept for the Sept. 11 attacks to Osama bin Laden as early as 1996, obtained funding for the attacks from bin Laden, oversaw the operation, and trained the hijackers in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Sheikh Mohammed was born in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province and raised in Kuwait.

Mr. Holder’s earlier decision that Sheikh Mohammed would be tried in New York initially was 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”

Between November 2009 and Monday, an avalanche of criticism from Republicans, including former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, led a chorus of opposition in a place where there was virtually no opposition to trying major terrorism defendants prior to Sept. 11, 2001, even though some defendants had spoken of targeting judges and the FBI headquarters in lower Manhattan.

In a troubled economy, fears that a major trial would harm real estate values in lower Manhattan and create high expenses for the city’s police department seemed to push Mr. Bloomberg and others to change their minds.

By early 2010, city officials estimated it would cost $216 million for the first year after Sheikh Mohammed and the four others were brought to Manhattan from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and $200 million annually every year as long as they remained.

They cited the cost of New York Police Department patrols but never got specific about those costs and never explained why the detention and trial of others, such as a defendant who was convicted last year in the deadly 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, did not drive up police costs considerably as well.

As politicians bickered over the issue, administrators at the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan and at the U.S. Marshals Service prepared for the possibility of a trial. At one point, there was discussion of broadcasting the trial on closed circuit television to a large enough venue that family members of Sept. 11 victims could watch the proceedings.

As security at the courthouse was tightened in anticipation of the trial, Mr. Bloomberg turned against the possibility in late January 2010.

“There are places that would be less expensive for the taxpayers and less disruptive for New York City,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

Associated Press writer Larry Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.

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