9/11 masterminds could face trial in federal court

Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's alleged driver, was held in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay prison camp like these detainees. (Department of Defense photo by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy)
Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's alleged driver, was held in Cuba at Guantanamo Bay prison camp like these detainees. (Department of Defense photo by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON– As the Obama administration nears its deadline for deciding where to try the men suspected of masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks, there are strong indications that those trials could take place in federal courts in the United States. That’s prompting fervent opposition from Republicans, who say the 9/11 terrorists should never be allowed anywhere on U.S. soil, let alone in a civilian U.S. court.

Military Commissions lead prosecutor Capt. John F. Murphy told reporters in September that four different U.S. attorneys offices in New York, Washington and Virginia were vying for the opportunity to try the five now-infamous defendants, which include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarek Bin ‘Attash; Ramzi Binalshibh; Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi are the other four. According to Murphy, the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York, based in Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively; the Eastern District of Virginia, based in Alexandria; and the District of Columbia had all submitted requests to hold the high-profile trials in their courthouses, and to detain the suspects in their jails during trial. The military commissions are also seeking to try the defendants.

Meanwhile, White House lawyers, a task force advising the president, and President Obama have all said that their preference is to try terror suspects in federal courts whenever possible, although they have not ruled out the possibility of using military commissions to try some of them. It remains unclear which ones.

The administration has promised to make its final decision on where to try the 9/11 suspects by Nov. 16. Fearing that the administration is inching toward bringing them to New York City or the Washington, D.C., area, opponents of trying high-level terrorists in U.S. federal courts are stepping up their efforts to keep the five men out of the United States for any purpose. On Oct. 9, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he’d attached an amendment to an appropriations bill that would prohibit the Obama administration from spending money on prosecuting and trying these five alleged terrorists in U.S. civilian federal courts.”Khalid Sheik Mohammed needs to be tried in a military tribunal,”Graham told McClatchy Newspapers. “He’s not a common criminal. He took up arms against the United States.”

Graham is not alone in that view. In August, he joined Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Jim Webb (D-Va.) in sending a letter to President Obama expressing concern over reports that the Administration may try Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other alleged war criminals in civilian courts. The senators urged the administration to try them in military commissions instead, saying in part:

The individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay are not held because of violations of domestic criminal law. They are detained because they have been found to be members of al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations, and have taken up arms against the United States of America. The forum for their trial should reflect the fact that these detainees were captured as part of a military operation and face trial for violations of the law of war. As a result, we urge you to prosecute these suspected war criminals by military commission at Guantanamo Bay.

The bill, H.R.2847, is pending in the Senate as an amendment to an appropriations bill.

On Tuesday, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey made a similar argument against allowing the 9/11 defendants to be tried in a civilian federal court in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Mukasey warned that the costs and burdens of security would be enormous, that housing suspected terrorists in U.S. prisons would threaten national security, and that a public trial would elicit sensitive evidence that would compromise intelligence sources and that terrorists will later use against us.

Those sorts of arguments outrage many legal experts and former military officers, who say that only a public trial in a U.S. federal court that affords terror suspects the same rights as all ordinary criminal suspects will carry the legitimacy necessary for such an important trial. And they dismiss the claims that housing terrorists in U.S. maximum security prisons, where terror suspects have been imprisoned for many years, would create any danger at all.

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