WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, ending more than a year of indecision with a major policy reversal, will prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other people accused of plotting the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks before a military commission and not a civilian court, as it once planned.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Monday that he has cleared military prosecutors at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to file war-crimes charges against the five detainees in the Sept. 11 case.
Holder had decided in November 2009 to move the case to a federal civilian courtroom in New York City, but the White House abandoned that plan amid a political backlash.
The shift was foreshadowed by stiffening congressional resistance to bringing Guantanamo detainees into the United States, and by other recent steps clearing the way for new tribunal trials.
Still, it marked a significant moment of capitulation in the Obama administration's largely frustrated effort to dismantle counterterrorism architecture left behind by former President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama, in one of his first initiatives, had announced his intention to close the Guantanamo prison in a year, a goal that he failed to fulfill.
Holder said Monday that he stood by his judgment that it made more sense, based on the facts and evidence of the case, to try Mohammed, described as the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and the four others in a federal court. He criticized restrictions imposed by Congress last year that banned the military from using its funds to transfer detainees to domestic soil, even for trials.
"We must face a simple truth: those restrictions are unlikely to be repealed in the immediate future," Holder said. "And we simply cannot allow a trial to be delayed any longer for the victims of the 9/11 attacks or for their families who have waited nearly a decade for justice."
On Monday, several Republicans praised the decision to hold a military trial, while attacking the administration for ever thinking of doing otherwise.
"It's unfortunate that it took the Obama administration more than two years to figure out what the majority of Americans already know: that 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not a common criminal, he's a war criminal," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
But groups that had praised Holder's original plan as helping to restore the role of the traditional criminal justice system reacted with frustration on Monday. Some criticized Obama, who announced his re-election bid on Monday, and others singled out Holder.
Cases prosecuted in military commissions now "are sure to be subject to continuous legal challenges and delays, and their outcomes will not be seen as legitimate. That is not justice," said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero.
Military prosecutors are expected to seek the death penalty.
In New York on Monday, the government unsealed an indictment that outlined its case. It charged Mohammed and the others with 10 counts relating to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The indictment said that in late August 2001, as the terrorists in the United States made final preparations, Mohammed was notified about the date of the attack and relayed that to al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
The Justice Department got a judge to dismiss the indictment Monday because of the change in trial plans.
During a military hearing at Guantanamo Bay in 2007, Mohammed confessed to planning the Sept. 11 attacks and a chilling string of other terror plots. Many of the schemes, including a previously undisclosed plan to kill several former U.S. presidents, were never carried out or were foiled by international counterterror authorities. Mohammed made clear that al-Qaida wanted to down a second trans-Atlantic aircraft during would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid's failed operation later in 2001.
The other four alleged co-conspirators are Waleed bin Attash, a Yemeni who allegedly ran an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan; Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni who allegedly helped find flight schools for the hijackers; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, accused of helping nine of the hijackers travel to the United States and sending them $120,000 for expenses and flight training, and Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, a Saudi accused of helping the hijackers with money.
Mohammed allegedly proposed the idea for the Sept. 11 attacks to bin Laden as early as 1996, obtained funding from bin Laden, oversaw the operation and trained the hijackers in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Some 9/11 family members applauded the change to military trials.
"We're delighted," said Alexander Santora, 74, father of deceased firefighter Christopher A. Santora. The father called the accused terrorists "demonic human beings, they've already said that they would kill us if they could, if they got the chance they would do it again."
Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.