WASHINGTON - The alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four others will be sent for prosecution in a criminal court in New York from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an Obama administration official said on Friday.
The five were being prosecuted in U.S. military commissions at Guantanamo, but the Obama administration has pledged to close the controversial prison and to move some of the cases to traditional U.S. criminal courts for trial.
I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice. The American people will insist on it. My administration will insist on it, U.S. President Barack Obama said in Tokyo where he was on a weeklong trip through Asia.
In addition to claiming responsibility for the 2001 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, Mohammed has said he was responsible for numerous other attacks and that in 2002 he beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Some other Guantanamo detainees will be tried in military tribunals, including the accused mastermind of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole warship in Yemen, Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, the official said.
Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed and 47 wounded in that attack.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to announce the decisions later on Friday, the administration official said, declining to be further identified. Holder faced a Monday court deadline to make a decision.
The move marks one of the first major steps by the Obama administration to close the prison, which he has pledged to do by January 22, 2010. However, Obama and his team have faced numerous political and diplomatic hurdles and some officials admit it may be hard to meet the deadline.
The official who tried to lead the effort to close Guantanamo, White House Counsel Gregory Craig, is resigning from the post, the White House confirmed on Friday.
There are 215 detainees at the detention camp which was set up in early 2002 by the George W. Bush administration to house terrorism suspects.
Trials in New York may provoke strong public reactions, particularly since it was the site of the 2001 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center's twin towers and killed nearly 3,000 people.
One Guantanamo detainee, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, has already been sent from Guantanamo to New York to be tried on charges of being involved in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 224 people.
The four other September 11 suspects being held at Guantanamo are Walid bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi. It was not clear where the suspects will be held while they are awaiting trial but some have suggested the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in South Carolina.
One difficulty prosecutors may face in pursuing charges against Mohammed, a Pakistani raised in Kuwait and educated in the United States, was is that he was subjected to harsh interrogations which human rights groups have called torture.
While in U.S. custody, Mohammed was subjected 183 times to waterboarding, which simulates drowning by pouring water over someone's face while they are was restrained.
Among the barriers to closing Guantanamo is the deep resistance by U.S. allies to take detainees from the prison who have been cleared of connections to terrorism. Some of Obama's political opponents in the United States do not want the trials held on U.S. soil.
Some Republicans argued that Guantanamo already has the facilities to try and imprison the terrorism suspects. They also have said communities that would house the prisoners in the United States could become targets for attacks.
But the administration of Obama and his fellow Democrats have countered that the U.S. courts and prisons have handled scores of terrorism suspects previously and they must close Guantanamo because it has tarnished the United States' reputation abroad.
The White House pressed Congress to overhaul the military commissions to address concerns raised by civil rights groups. Lawmakers ultimately barred the use of confessions from harsh interrogations and made it tougher to use hearsay evidence.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Tokyo, Editing by Arshad Mohammed and Vicki Allen)