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US Lawmakers Say Politics Played Role in Military Trial Decision

A photo of alleged Sep 11, 2001 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed soon after he was arrested (file photo)

Some Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers are saying politics played a role in reversing the Obama administration's decision over the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. In a surprise move Monday, the administration announced that Khalid Shiekh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators would be tried by a military commission instead of a civilian court.

Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner says presidential politics was behind President Barack Obama's decision to scrap his plan to switch to military commission trials for alleged conspirators of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"I find it a strange coincidence that the administration decided to announce this 180 degree turn in policy the day before this hearing and on the very same day that the president announced his re-election campaign. I and many others believe the security of the United States should not depend upon politics," he said.

Speaking at a House Judiciary Committe hearing Tuesday, Sensenbrenner says it should not have taken the president over two years to recognize that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators are war criminals.

"The attrocities of September 11th were not just domestic crimes like robbery or burglary they were acts of unmitigated war against the entire country and as such all of the United States and its people were victims in some way of this attack," Sensenbrenner said.

That’s why Sensenbrenner and other proponents of military commissions argue they are better suited for terrorism suspects. Federal trials are deliberated by a jury, while military commissions are reviewed by a panel of military officers.

Not all Republican lawmakers have been as blunt as Sensenbrenner. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and key author of legislation for the creation of military commissions applauded the move.

On Monday, Senators John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut issued a statement praising Obama for coming around on the issue.

In 2009, the Obama administration announced that the alleged plotters of the September 11 attacks would be tried in federal courts. Representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, says that ever since then, Congress has made it impossible for detainees at the U.S. facility in Guantanmo Bay, Cuba, to be transfered to the United States. "Yesterday's announcement is a reflection of the fact that Congress left no practical option open to the administration and I believe the actions of Congress in this regard were unwise," Scott said.

Scott says federal courts are still the best place to try terrorists because they were more likely to obtain verdicts for guilty defendants and avoid further court challenges after rulings were handed down. "The federal courts have convicted 400 people on terrorism charges over the last 10 years. In contrast, there have been only six convictions under the commissions since 9-11 and during that time we've learned that the survivability of the commissions under court challenges cannot be taken for granted," Scott added.

Republican Representative Lamar Smith disagrees. He says President Obama's initial decision to try foriegn terrorists in civilian courts makes it harder to get a conviction.

"We saw this recently with the civilian trial of Gitmo detainee Ahmed Ghailani. The first foreign terrorist detained in Guantanamo Bay to be tried in civilian courts. This trial was a test-run for the Obama administration's plan to try foreign terrorists in U.S. courts. It was also a near disaster. Ghailani was aquitted by all but one of the 285 counts against him," Smith said.

Where the United States should try alledged terrorists and plotters of the September 11 attacks has long been a point of controversy. Human rights and legal groups have long voiced opposition to military commissions arguing that they would violate international standards that give defendants more rights and are likely to be the subject of litigation for years to come.

But as the 10th anniversary of the attacks approaches, analysts note that what most do agree on is that the debate has dragged on too long.

David Beamer, the father of September 11 victim Todd Beamer spoke at Tuesday's hearing. "How can it be that KSM, 10 years after that fateful day, four years after he confessed and proudly acknowledged his role, his major role in making it happen, proudly proclaiming that he had the hand that killed journalist Daniel Pearl? How can we still be sitting here with him not brought to justice?," Beamer said.

Todd Beamer was a passenger on United Airlines flight 93 who struggled with terrorists on board the plane before it crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania,killing all 44 people including four hijackers.