President Obama will help select the location of the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and insert himself into the process that has faced major political setbacks, The Washington Post reports.
Administration officials acknowledged that Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama advisers were not able to build support for the trail in New York City. Meanwhile, Holder acknowledged in an interview with The Post that the trial may be switched to a military commission.
“At the end of the day, wherever this case is tried, in whatever forum, what we have to do is ensure is that it’s done as transparently as possible and with adherence to all the rules,” Holder said. “If we do that, I’m not sure the location or even the forum is as important as what the world sees is proceeding.”
That position is a major shift from where he stood previously, but reflects the political reality of holding the trial in a city against the will of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and several Republican and Democratic senators who have signaled support for a bill which would bar the Justice Department from funding the trail in civilian court.
In November when he announced the decision, he cited the symbolism of bringing the men to justice near the site of the World Trade Center towers, which were demolished in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September the 11th will finally face justice,” Holder said in a statement. “They will be brought to New York to answer for their alleged crimes in a courthouse just blocks from where the twin towers once stood.”
The decision to try Mohammed was Holder’s alone, officials said, and was not influenced by politics.
“Their building represents what they do — justice. It’s rightly not staffed with people who have to worry about congressional relations or federal funding,” one White House official told The Washington Post.
Reflecting on his first year, Holder told The Post: “What I’ve tried to do is reestablish the department in the way that it has always been seen at its best, as an agency that is independent, given the unique responsibilities that it has,” he said. “But to be truly effective in the national security sphere, you’ve got to involve partners outside this building. To make decisions the AG has to make, you have to involve the commander in chief and these other people. I’m part of the national security team in a way that I’m not involved in the environmental resources team, the civil rights team.”
In an interview with The New York Times, Holder again hit back at critics of trying terrorism suspects in civilian court, saying fear and partisanship drove some of the objections to the administration’s decisions.
“I think a substantial number of people who have criticized the decisions I have made have done so on a political basis for partisan motives and have used fear in a way to support their arguments,” he said. “And it’s a difficult thing to overcome fear with facts, to overcome campaign slogans with explanations of complex policy decisions. It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult, and it’s an effort that I need to be more engaged in.”
The White House and the Justice Department have been more visible in countering the Republican attacks in recent weeks after seeming to be caught off guard by the political storm over the NYC trials.
The New York Times article pointed out that civilian trials have a much better track record than military commissions:
John Walker Lindh and David Hicks were both young Muslim converts who traveled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban and were captured there in 2001 by American troops. But then their cases diverged — in ways that might surprise anyone following the fierce political debate over how the Obama administration should treat terrorism suspects.
Bush administration officials decided to charge Mr. Lindh, an American, in the civilian criminal justice system. He was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and will not get out until at least 2019.
Mr. Hicks, an Australian, was treated as an enemy combatant — the approach now pressed by President Obama’s Republican critics. He went before a military commission at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and got a seven-year sentence with all but nine months suspended. He is already free.