The Obama administration on Wednesday defended plans to try the self-professed mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks in criminal courts despite harsh criticism from Republicans who say the trials are too risky.
As President Barack Obama tries to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his accused co-conspirators are set to be moved from there to New York for trial in a court near the World Trade Center site.
Obama, in a television interview while on a trip through Asia, predicted that the U.S. criminal court system will be able to handle the trials and that ultimately Mohammed will be convicted and put to death.
(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.
Obama has promised to close the Guantanamo prison by January 22, arguing it has served as a recruiting tool for anti-American militants and has hurt U.S. standing abroad.
But few expect him to reach that deadline because of political and legal hurdles.
Holder has admitted the January 22 deadline will be difficult to meet, particularly because it has been tough finding countries to take the 90 or so detainees who have been cleared of wrongdoing and are eligible for transfer.
In remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder defended his decision to try Mohammed and the others in criminal courts and said classified material will also be protected during the trials.
We know that we can prosecute terrorists in our federal courts safely and securely because we have been doing it for years, he said. And at the end of the day, it was clear to me that the venue in which we are most likely to obtain justice for the American people is in federal court.
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.
I'm not scared of what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will have to say at trial -- and no one else needs to be either, Holder said. He also said that after discussions with New York officials that he believed the trials could be held safely.
Republicans have been divided on bringing the terrorism suspects to U.S. soil for trial. Many have argued they should be tried in military courts at Guantanamo because they believe criminal courts are not suited for such trials and they worry that the U.S. trial sites could become targets for attacks.
Officials are eyeing a prison in rural Illinois to house some of the remaining 215 detainees still at Guantanamo.
Other prominent Republicans said the security risks were being blown out of proportion and that the U.S. court system could handle the terrorism trials, a sentiment shared by Obama's fellow Democrats.
Holder also announced last week that five other detainees at Guantanamo, including the accused mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole warship in Yemen, will be tried in revamped military commissions.