WASHINGTON The Obama administration on Monday reversed plans to use U.S. criminal courts to prosecute the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four co-conspirators and ordered them tried at a military tribunal.
Following are some key questions and answers about this major reversal of policy.
WHY THE REVERSAL?
There was visceral opposition from Republicans and even some of Obama's fellow Democrats to prosecuting Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators in a federal court in the heart of Manhattan, just blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the September 11 attacks.
Opponents argued the trial would create a target for attacks and security could cost up to $1 billion. They also did not believe Mohammed and his accused co-conspirators were entitled to receive full U.S. legal rights in a federal court.
The U.S. Congress blocked funding for transferring any of the men to American soil for trial or detention.
The Obama administration either had to wage what would have been an uphill battle to lift that ban or reverse its decision. Attorney General Eric Holder also said a trial could no longer be delayed.
WHAT ARE THE POLITICAL RAMIFICATIONS?
Obama campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to close the military prison at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba amid widespread criticism of the Bush administration's use of the facility to hold terrorism suspects there without trial.
Obama will likely now face a backlash from the left wing of his Democratic Party base for the decision to resume military trials at Guantanamo and give up on prosecuting the 9/11 suspects in federal court. However, it remains to be seen what impact, if any, it will have on his re-election bid.
Obama won plaudits from Republicans who said the decision was long overdue and that it vindicated the Bush-era policies on detaining and prosecuting the suspects.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A U.S. CRIMINAL COURT AND A
SPECIAL MILITARY TRIBUNAL?
Military commissions are made up of a military judge and jury, not a traditional jury of ordinary American citizens. Rules for introducing certain evidence, such as hearsay conversations, are less stringent in a military commission, and defendants' access to evidence against them could be more restricted. Prosecutors can seek the death penalty in a military commission or a criminal court.
If a suspect pleads guilty in a criminal court, he or she can be sentenced to death, but it is unclear if that can happen in a military court.
WHAT ABOUT EFFORTS TO PROSECUTE OTHER TERRORISM SUSPECTS?
Holder vowed to continue trying terrorism suspects in traditional criminal courts, noting that scores have been successfully prosecuted. He said "our national security demands that we continue to prosecute terrorists in federal court, and we will do so." However, Monday's policy reversal suggests that may be easier said than done.
DOES HOLDER STAND BY HIS DECISION IN 2009 TO PROSECUTE THE
SEPT. 11 SUSPECTS IN A CRIMINAL COURT?
Put simply, yes. Holder was resolute in his belief that his decision 16 months ago to hold the trials in Manhattan, just blocks from the former World Trade Center site, was the right one. He castigated lawmakers in the U.S. Congress for interfering with the executive branch's decision, saying they were not privy to all the intelligence and legal strategies for prosecuting Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators.
"I know this case in a way that members of Congress do not. I have looked at the files, I've spoken to the prosecutors, I know the tactical concerns that have to go into this decision. So do I know better than them? Yes."
(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by Todd Eastham)