The Obama administration reversed course on Monday and announced that the alleged mastermind of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will be tried in a military commission and not in a civilian court as previously planned. The decision brings to an end a year-and-a-half political battle in the United States over the judicial fate of the accused terrorist ringleader and four alleged co-conspirators.
The announcement was made at the Justice Department by Attorney General Eric Holder.
It was Holder who announced in November 2009 that the administration had decided to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court, sparking outrage from Republicans and some Democrats, especially those who represent New York City where the trial was to have been held.
But on Monday, Holder announced that new restrictions passed late last year by Congress prohibiting the transfer of terror detainees to the United States from the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had effectively tied the administration’s hands when it comes to pursuing a civilian trial.
“But we must face a simply truth. Those restrictions are unlikely to be repealed in the immediate future. And we simply cannot allow a trial to be delayed any longer for the victims of the 9/11 [September 11, 2001] attacks or for their family members who have waited for nearly a decade for justice," he said.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has long been considered the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington that also resulted in a downed U.S. airliner over Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will now be tried in a military commission along with four alleged co-conspirators are also being held at Guantanamo Bay.
The announcement of the Obama administration’s decision was greeted with enthusiasm by Republicans in Congress who have long called on the president to try terror detainees through military courts.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky described the administration’s change of heart as a welcome development.
“This is the right outcome to the long and spirited debate that proceeded this decision. Military commissions at Guantanamo, far from the U.S. mainland, were always the right idea for a variety of compelling reasons, which I and others have enumerated repeatedly over the last two years," he said.
California Republican Buck McKeon is the Chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee. “It is about time. And I think that we should be moving forward for justice for the victims, for their families. I have met with families of survivors of 9/11, and this is the way to do it," he said.
The policy change will disappoint civil liberties and human rights groups who supported the administration’s initial decision to try the terror suspects in federal court.
Holder said he still believes a trial in federal court would be the better way to go, but that he reluctantly decided to refer the cases to military commissions because of what he described as the “unwise and unwarranted restrictions” approved by Congress.
“The reality is though that I know this case in a way that members of Congress do not. I have looked at the files. I have spoken to the prosecutors. I know the tactical concerns that have to go into this decision. So do I know better than them? Yes," he said.
Holder said the Obama administration still intends to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention center at some point, which would fulfill a promise President Obama made to close the facility within one year after he took office.
That deadline has long since passed. The president signed an executive order last month lifting a two-year freeze on military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, signaling that the prison will remain open for some time to come.