WASHINGTON — In a move both politically and legally risky, the Obama administration plans to put on trial the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and four alleged accomplices in a lower Manhattan courthouse.
The venue for the biggest trial in the age of terrorism means prosecutors must balance difficult issues such as rough treatment of detainees and sensitive intelligence-gathering with the Justice Department's desire to prove that the federal courts are able to handle terrorism cases.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced the decision Friday to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to trial in a courtroom barely a thousand yards from the site of the World Trade Center's twin towers they are accused of destroying.
Trying the men in civilian court will bar evidence obtained under duress and complicate a case where anything short of slam-dunk convictions will empower President Barack Obama's critics. U.S. civilian courts prohibit evidence obtained through coercion, and a number of detainees were questioned using harsh methods some call torture.
Holder insisted both the court system and the untainted evidence against the five men are strong enough to deliver a guilty verdict and the penalty he expects to seek: a death sentence for the deaths of nearly 3,000 people who were killed when four hijacked jetliners slammed into the towers, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania.
"After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September the 11th will finally face justice. They will be brought to New York – to New York," Holder repeated for emphasis, "to answer for their alleged crimes in a courthouse just blocks away from where the twin towers once stood."
Holder said he decided to bring Mohammed and the other four before a civilian court rather than a military commission because of the nature of the undisclosed evidence against them, because the 9/11 victims were mostly civilians and because the attacks took place on U.S. soil.
Lawyers for the accused will almost certainly try to have charges thrown out based on the rough treatment of the detainees at the hands of U.S. interrogators, including the repeated waterboarding, or simulated drowning, of Mohammed.
The question has been raised as to whether the government can make its case without using coerced confessions, but prosecutors have other evidence including a written confession from Mohammed and other statements and documents to bolster their case.
Held at Guantanamo since September 2006, Mohammed said in military proceedings there that he wanted to plead guilty and be executed to achieve what he views as martyrdom. In a letter from him released by the war crimes court, he referred to the attacks as a "noble victory" and urged U.S. authorities to "pass your sentence on me and give me no respite."
Holder insisted the case is on firm legal footing, but he acknowledged the political ground may be more shaky when it comes to bringing feared al-Qaida terrorists to U.S. soil.
"To the extent that there are political consequences, I'll just have to take my lumps," he said. But any political consequences will reach beyond Holder to his boss, Obama.
Bringing such notorious suspects to U.S. soil to face trial is a key step in Obama's plan to close the military-run detention center in Cuba. Obama initially planned to close the prison by next Jan. 22, but the administration is not expected to meet that deadline.
Obama said he is "absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice. The American people will insist on it and my administration will insist on it."
The five suspects headed to New York are likely to face thousands of counts of murder and conspiracy. Mohammed and the four others – Waleed bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi and Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali – are all accused of orchestrating the 2001 attacks.
The government also announced five other Guantanamo detainees, including the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, would be sent to military commissions to face charges.
Associated Press writers Pete Yost, Mark Sherman and Jesse J. Holland in Washington, David B. Caruso in New York and Ben Fox and Mike Melia in San Juan contributed to this report.