Attorney General Eric Holder: 'Close to a Decision' on 9/11 Trials

Obama administration weighing where, how to try Sept. 11 conspirators.

November 10, 2010, 2:30 PM

WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2010— -- Attorney General Eric Holder said today that he is "close to a decision" on where and how to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The development comes nearly a year Holder's proposal to try Mohammed and four other 9/11 conspirators in federal court in New York City sparked intense public and political outrage.

"The process is an ongoing one," Holder told reporters in Washington. "We are working to make a determination about the placement of that trial. I hope that whenever the decision is, it is one that will be based on the merits and what is best for the case and justice in that case."

In November 2009, Holder told a Senate panel that trying Mohammed and four other high-profile detainees in federal, civilian court was a "tough call" but that he believed the U.S. court system -- not a military tribunal -- could render justice best.

"Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is sturdy, our resolve is firm and our people are ready," he said at the time.

Holder did not indicate exactly which U.S. courts would hear the case, although New York City became the Obama administration's top pick.

The decision drew sharp criticism from Republicans, who have said the five 9/11 plotters, currently being held at the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay detention center, should be treated as enemy combatants and tried in military courts not on U.S. soil.

New York City officials, who initially backed Holder, later became wary of the plan because of cost and security concerns, saying in January that the trial should be held elsewhere and that it probably would be.

"It would be phenomenally expensive and it is very disruptive to people who live in the area and businesses in the area," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said then of his conversations with Obama administration officials. "It would be better to do it elsewhere if they could find a venue."

The Obama administration began looking for alternate locations to try Mohammed and the four other detainees, although Holder continued to insist that New York City was "not off the table."

"Nothing is really off the table at this point," Holder said in May. "We are trying to come up with a place where these people can be brought to justice as quickly as we can, taking into consideration a variety of things that we have to consider."

Republicans almost universally are against the idea of bringing the detainees to the U.S. for trial.

"I urge Attorney General Holder not to hold any 9/11 trials in New York or anywhere in the United States," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. "These 9/11 terrorists should be tried before a military commission at Guantanamo."

Several Democrats, including New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have also opposed holding the trials in New York.

"The trial should not and will not be in New York," Schumer said in a statement Wednesday.

The Obama administration put a lot of weight behind the symbolism of trying the suspects at the scene of the crime.

One line of thinking behind trying the suspected terrorists in federal court rather than before a military commission was that it would send a powerful message to the international community and undo some of the damage the Guantanamo Bay detention camp has done to the U.S. image abroad.

The primary message would be that the United States can use its traditional federal courts to try, convict and execute the people who devised the deadliest terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil, and New York was the "sentimental favorite," as one source said.

New York City officials projected that trying the Sept. 11 suspects would cost $400 million for a two-year trial. The mayor's office estimated that it would cost another $206 million annually if the trial ran beyond two years, which some say is possible.

The five suspects are Mohammed, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarek Bin 'Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi.