Senators push for 9/11 trials in military court
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of nine U.S. senators on Tuesday offered legislation to force special military trials for the accused September 11, 2001, conspirators, further complicating President Barack Obama's bid to try them in a civilian court.
The Obama administration has been caught off guard by mounting bipartisan opposition to trying the self-professed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four others in a federal criminal court in lower Manhattan.
The nine senators argued against prosecuting the five men in a criminal court because they would receive full U.S. constitutional rights, and they could use the civilian trials to espouse their anti-American views.
They were also upset at the price tag, pegged at $200 million a year. Their legislation would bar funding for civilian trials.
"Civilian trials are unnecessarily dangerous, messy, confusing and expensive," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters.
He argued that the five men, who are being held at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. military prison, are war criminals who should face military trials that would also ensure that no classified information would spill out.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the bill.
The Obama administration has maintained that most foreign terrorism suspects have been successfully prosecuted in federal criminal courts, but has agreed to reconsider holding the trials in Manhattan amid the security and cost concerns.
"I think it's pretty obvious they're not going to do it in New York but they have not signed off on it," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York. A Justice Department official said on Monday Manhattan was still a possibility.
The legislation is sponsored by six Republicans, along with Democrats Jim Webb and Blanche Lincoln and independent Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who often votes with Democrats.
Lincoln is facing a tough re-election bid in her home state of Arkansas. Other terrorism-related trials may be held in Webb's home state of Virginia.
Graham did not detail how the bill's sponsors would pursue the measure in Congress. The Senate and House of Representatives are controlled by Obama's fellow Democrats, but Graham noted that some Democrats are backing the bill.
Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to prosecute the five accused September 11 conspirators in a civilian court has turned into a political hot potato for the Obama administration. It has forced the White House and Justice Department to spend time and political capital to try to ensure that funding for the criminal trials is not blocked.
"I believe strongly in letting the Justice Department make prosecutorial decisions, and I support this administration's decision to try detainees in federal courts when appropriate," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Obama on Monday described the opposition to the criminal trial as "rank politics" because most prosecutions of foreign terrorism suspects during his Republican predecessor George W. Bush's administration were held in criminal courts.
"I hope and pray that the president will understand that as commander-in-chief he is pursuing a strategy that will weaken our national security. I do not question his motives, I question his judgment," Graham said, denying a political motive.
"It's really cost, I think it's also security and I think it's appropriateness, it's exactly what I hear from my constituency," Lincoln said. "These are criminals, they're war criminals and they need to be tried in the military courts."
Republican U.S. Representative Frank Wolf plans to introduce companion legislation in the House of Representatives on Tuesday. Similar efforts to force the trials into military court failed last year.
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by Will Dunham)
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