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Military charges may be revived for 9/11 suspects

GOP pushes vote to prevent a civilian trial

By Devlin Barrett
Associated Press / February 14, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration appears increasingly unsure what to do with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, after officials indicated they are reconsidering not just where he should go on trial, but whether he should face civilian or military justice.

Attorney General Eric Holder and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs did not rule out a military trial when asked Friday about the Obama administration’s options.

Trying Mohammed in military court would mark a further political retreat from Holder’s announcement last year that Mohammed and the four other Sept. 11 suspects now held at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be tried in federal court in New York.

The Obama administration is trying to head off a possible vote in the Senate that could stop any terror suspects held at Guantanamo from being brought to the United States to face a civilian trial. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is offering such legislation, after losing a vote last year on the issue.

“These Al Qaeda terrorists are not common criminals,’’ Graham said yesterday in the Republicans’ weekly radio and Internet address. “A civilian trial of hard-core terrorists is unnecessarily dangerous and creates more problems than it solves.’’

At stake is the public perception of the administration’s handling of national security, already shaken last year by strong congressional opposition to transferring any Guantanamo detainees to American soil.

A Hill defeat over the trial issue could embolden the GOP minority to raise national security concerns in the midterm elections later this year.

“Military tribunals are the best way to render justice, win this war, and protect our nation from a vicious enemy,’’ said Graham.

The prospect of such a vote could be a test of how many moderate Democrats have abandoned Obama on the issue.

White House officials said Friday that Obama and his top advisers will play a direct role in deciding how to prosecute Mohammed. The administration initially decided to try the five terror defendants in New York but has since appeared to backtrack.

“Obviously there are efforts on Capitol Hill through legislation to restrict either the type of or the venue of a trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his coconspirators,’’ Gibbs said. “That, by definition, involves the White House and ultimately the president.’’

“So, since this effort has moved from strictly a Justice Department decision to something that’s in the legislative arena, the White House - and by definition the president - are involved.’’

As a result of Holder’s decision to seek a civilian prosecution, Bush-era military charges that had been pending against the five suspects were dismissed last month. Those military charges could now be revived.

The administration is reconsidering Holder’s plan to put the five men on trial in a federal court in Manhattan, after local officials there cited security and logistics complications.

The White House insisted it is sensitive to their concerns.

“We’re going to take into account security and logistical concerns that those individuals now have,’’ Gibbs said. “The cost of the trial, obviously, is one thing.’’

Holder said he still expects Mohammed to be tried in a federal civilian court, but he conceded it’s possible that won’t happen.