WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama suggested on Wednesday the self-professed mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks would be convicted and put to death, but later said he was not trying to prejudge the trial.
Speaking in television interviews while traveling in Asia, Obama acknowledged he would miss his January 22 deadline to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is now held, but said he believed it would be shut next year.
Separately, Attorney General Eric Holder told lawmakers Mohammed and his accused four co-conspirators could be safely tried in New York despite Republican security concerns.
In testimony before Congress, Holder also said the federal government was open to paying for some of the added security costs, which a New York senator said could be upwards of $75 million a year.
Obama defended Holder’s decision on Friday to move the five men from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for a trial in a U.S. federal court in New York.
“(What) I think we have to break is this fearful notion that somehow our justice system can’t handle these guys,” Obama said in an interview with NBC News.
Asked if he understood why some people were offended by trying the men in U.S. courts, he replied: “I don’t think it will be offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.”
He then backtracked, saying, “What I said was people will not be offended if that’s outcome. I’m not prejudging” them.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Holder also defended his decision and predicted Mohammed and the others would be convicted. “Failure is not an option. I don’t expect that we will have a contrary result.”
Many Republicans have argued the terrorism suspects should be tried in military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay because they believe criminal courts are not suited for such trials and they worry that the U.S. trial sites could become targets.
New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said initial cost estimates he had seen to secure the trials in lower Manhattan would be $75 million a year plus costs for added security around the city and additional police personnel.
The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jeff Sessions, said that the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington were acts of war and therefore the accused should be prosecuted in military courts.
“I believe this decision is dangerous, I believe it’s misguided, I believe it’s unnecessary,” he said. “I think there are clear advantages to trying cases by military commission as opposed to what can become a spectacle of a trial.”
Sessions also questioned whether the Obama administration was returning to a pre-September 11 mind-set which he argued was focused on law enforcement rather than preventing attacks.
But Holder defended the Obama administration’s efforts, saying: “I know that we are at war.”
He also said the judges who will preside over the trials will be able to prevent Mohammed from turning them into a circus, another concern of Republicans as well as some family members of the almost 3,000 who died in the September 11 attacks.
In a heated exchange, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona questioned why Holder decided to pursue a trial in a criminal court even though Mohammed had sought to plead guilty and requested execution in prior military commission proceedings.
Holder shot back: “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not making this decision.”
On Wednesday, a federal judge in New York ruled that the first detainee transferred from Guantanamo Bay to face charges in a U.S. civilian court will not be represented by military lawyers as he had requested.
Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian who is charged with conspiring in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people, was transferred in June from Guantanamo Bay to be tried in Manhattan federal court.
At Guantanamo, some military officials had expressed concern that there could be an outbreak of violence among the prisoners if the January 22 deadline to close the camp was missed. Most of the captives have been held at Guantanamo for seven years, nearly all without charge.
Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami and Christine Kearney in New York, Editing by Arshad Mohammed and Jackie Frank