More than three and a half years after a political uproar derailed his plans to try self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court, Attorney General Eric Holder declared himself vindicated.
“I think that had we gone along the path that I announced at that time, we would not have had to close down half of Manhattan, it wouldn’t have cost $200 million a year and the defendants would be on death row as we speak,” Holder said during a press conference at Justice Department headquarters today.
Today’s press conference was held to announce the government’s $2.2 billion settlement with Johnson & Johnson for civil and criminal allegations of illegal marketing of drugs. But Holder, in a Q&A session with reporters, was asked about his failed plans for KSM, as the al-Qaeda operative is called by government agencies.
Holder took the moment to gloat. “Not to be egocentric about this, I was right.”
During his first year in office in 2009, Holder came under intense criticism for announcing that he would seek federal trials in New York City for Mohammed and other alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The move was part of an attempt – later abandoned by President Barack Obama – to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where Mohamed and the others were and continue to be held.
“Today’s announcement marks a significant step forward in our efforts to close Guantánamo and to bring to justice those individuals who have conspired to attack our nation and our interests abroad,” Holder said in announcing the decision in November 2009.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused Holder of trying to stage a “show trial” for Mohammed by going to civilian court rather than using the military tribunals Cheney advocated. Holder’s predecessor as Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, said Holder had shown it was “amateur night” at the Justice Department.
Holder, meanwhile, failed to lay the political groundwork for his decision, and met some nasty surprises. New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said he thought security for the trial could run as high as $200 million – the estimate Holder today dismissed as overblown. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, after initially supporting the trials in Manhattan, later became a prominent opponent. Congress later put restrictions on the Justice Department’s ability to transfer Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. soil.
The Justice Department emphasized that it had successfully tried dozens of other terrorist suspects in civilian courts over the years, but to no avail.
“I think this is an example of what happens when politics gets into matters that ought to be simply decided by lawyers and by national security experts,” Holder said today.
Back in 2009, then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel angrily fretted that Holder’s decision on civilian trials could be politically damaging to Obama. White House support for the plan collapsed. In April 2011, Holder announced defeat: Mohammed and four co-defendants would be tried before a military court in Guantanamo Bay, he said. The defendants appeared for pre-trial arguments in the military proceeding earlier this year.
Since then, Emanuel – who was one of Holder’s principal foes in the administration – has moved on to become mayor of Chicago. And Obama – a close friend of Holder – recently asked the attorney general to stay on at the Justice Department, a sign Holder has weathered his various political controversies without significant damage.
All this may explain why Holder felt emboldened to crow.