Attorney General Michael Mukasey suggested Friday that he believes the alleged 9/11 plotters held at Guantanamo Bay should not be executed if convicted.
"I kind of hope they don't get it," Mukasey said after a speech at the London School of Economics. "Because many of them want to be martyrs, and it's kind of like the conversation … between the sadist and the masochist."
"The masochist says hit me and the sadist says no, so I am kind of hoping they don't get it," he said.
In February, the Pentagon charged six of the 9/11 conspirators, including the alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
The others: Walid Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Mustafa al Hawsawi -- who the government claims is a key financier for the attacks -- and Mohammed al Kahtani, who is alleged to have been the 20th hijacker on United flight 93 but was denied entry into the United States at the Orlando International Airport.
Mukasey told the London audience that he would not speak to the legality of the death penalty, saying, "We have rather a different society, we have rather different traditions" in the United States. The European Union, of which the United Kingdom is a member, is opposed to the use of capital punishment in all cases.
Of those charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, "one of them at least is proud enough of it to have written to his wife that he thinks he is innocent because it was only 3,000," Mukasey said. "If those are not poster children for the death penalty, I don't know who is."
Mukasey made clear the statements are his personal opinion, and heavily qualified them.
"In a way, I kind of hope, from a personal standpoint, and I can say this because the military commissions will be run by the Department of Defense not by the Justice Department -- although we are participating with them, and helping them in the prosecution, but it will be run by the Department of Defense," he said.
Still, the statement seems at odds with Bush administration policy that broadly supports the death penalty. The record suggests the administration believes capital punishment is the most appropriate penalty for terrorists convicted of killing Americans.
The administration spent years on a failed attempt to put low-level al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui to death for what critics call his murky, overstated role in the 9/11 conspiracy.
The decision on whether to pursue the death penalty against the Guantanamo Bay prisoners will ultimately be the military's, so Mukasey's comments will likely have little practical impact.
Susan J. Crawford, a Military Appeals Court judge, is the convening authority for military commissions and will decide whether alleged terrorists should face a capital case and be eligible for the death penalty.
But given that the White House likes to speak with one voice, the low-key Mukasey might prefer that his comments not draw much attention.
This is not the first time Mukasey has expressed his opinion on Guantanamo Bay. During his confirmation hearings in October, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "I think there are substantial problems with Guantanamo, both problems of reality and problems of perception."
"As to reality, it's my understanding that although people are humanely treated at Guantanamo, it's more than a matter of humane treatment. It's a matter of the fact that we're detaining people apparently without end and that it's given us a black eye."