Obama: U.S. Will Convict, Execute Mohammed

In this Feb. 25, 2009, file photo Attorney General Eric Holder listens during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington.
AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson
Updated at 1:42 p.m. Eastern time

President Obama predicted that professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be convicted and executed as Attorney General Eric Holder proclaimed: "Failure is not an option."

Even if a terror trial suspect were acquitted, Holder said, he would not be released in the United States.

In one of a series of TV interviews during his trip to Asia, Mr. Obama said those offended by the legal privileges given to Mohammed by virtue of getting a civilian trial rather than a military tribunal won't find it "offensive at all when he's convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him."

Mr. Obama quickly added that he did not mean to suggest he was prejudging the outcome of Mohammed's trial. "I'm not going to be in that courtroom," he said. "That's the job of the prosecutors, the judge and the jury."

In interviews broadcast on NBC and CNN Wednesday, the president also said that experienced prosecutors in the case who specialize in terrorism have offered assurances that "we'll convict this person with the evidence they've got, going through our system."

Mr. Obama said the American people should have no concern about the capability of civilian courts to try suspected terrorists. Attorney General Eric Holder last week announced the decision to bring Mohammed and four others detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to trial at a lower Manhattan courthouse.

Holder sought to explain U.S. prosecution strategy Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where lawmakers questioned him along largely partisan lines over his decision last week to send Mohammed and four alleged henchmen from a detention center at Guantanamo Bay to New York to face a civilian federal trial in New York.

Asked what might happen if the suspects are acquitted, Holder replied: "Failure is not an option. These are cases that have to be won. I don't expect that we will have a contrary result."

Sen. Charles Grassley pounced on that answer.

"It just seemed to me ludicrous, but I'm a farmer, not a lawyer," Grassley said.

Seeking to allay such concerns, Holder insisted the suspects will be convicted, but even if one isn't, "that doesn't mean that person would be released into our country."

Critics of Holder's decision - mostly Republicans - a world stage to spout hateful rhetoric.

Holder said such concerns are misplaced, because judges can control unruly defendants and any pronouncements by Mohammed would only make him look worse.

"I have every confidence that the nation and the world will see him for the coward that he is," Holder told the committee. "I'm not scared of what Khalid Sheik Mohammed has to say at trial - and no one else needs to be either."

In his opening statement to the committee, Holder addressed what he called "misinformation" that had been circulated since he made his announcement Friday, such as the criticism that federal courts couldn't handle a terrorism trial. Minutes after Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions made such a point at the beginning of the hearing, Holder responded.

"We knew that we can prosecute terrorists in federal court safely and securely because we have been doing so for years," Holder said. "Our courts have a long history of handling these cases, and no district has a longer history than the Southern District of New York in Manhattan."

Read Holder's Entire Opening Statement in Political Hotsheet

Holder said the public and the nation's intelligence secrets can be protected during a public trial in civilian court.

"We need not cower in the face of this enemy," Holder says. "Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is sturdy, our resolve is firm, and our people are ready."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman, supported Holder's decision.

Mohammed, Leahy said, "committed crimes of murder in our country and we will prosecute them in our country. We're the most powerful nation on earth, we have a justice system that is the envy of the world. We will not be afraid."

Tempers flared when Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., challenged Holder to say how a civilian trial could be better, since Mohammed has sought to plead guilty to a military commission.

"How could he be more likely to get a conviction than that?" pressed Kyl, to applause from some in the hearing room.

The attorney general said his decision is not based "on the whims or the desires of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ... He will not select the prosecution venue, I will. And I have."

Holder at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be transferred to federal court in Manhattan to face trial - just blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center.

Five other suspects, Holder said, will be sent to face justice before military commissions in the United States, though a location for those commissions has not yet been determined.

The actual transfer of the suspects to New York is still many weeks away. The transfers are a key step in Mr. Obama's pledge to close the detention center at Guantanamo, which currently houses some 215 detainees. The administration is not expected to meet its January deadline to shutter the facility.

Geraldine Davie, whose 23-year-old daughter died at the World Trade Center's Tower One, attended the hearing as a spectator, and said she wants Mohammed to stay in the military system. "He's not a U.S. citizen, why should he have those rights? My daughter didn't have those rights," said Davie, who lives in Springfield, Va.

In addition to the 10 detainees named Friday, Holder is expected to send others to trials and commissions in the United States.

Holder told senators that the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan was "the venue in which we were most likely to obtain justice for the American people."

"For eight years justice has been delayed for the 9/11 attacks," Holder said during his testimony. "No more delay. It is time; it is past time to finally act."

Another, larger group of detainees is expected to be released to other countries. Some, the president has said, are too dangerous to be released and cannot be put on trial, and those detainees will continue to be imprisoned.

The attorney general says his decisions between trials and commissions were based strictly on which venues he thought would bring the strongest prosecution.

Opponents of the plan, including Holder's predecessor Michael Mukasey, have accused him of adopting a "pre-9/11" approach to terrorism.

Holder emphatically denied that.

"We are at war, and we will use every instrument of national power - civilian, military, law enforcement, intelligence, diplomatic and others - to win," Holder said.

He continued at another point in his opening statement to the committee.

"I know that we are at war," Holder said. "I know that we are at war with a vicious enemy ... Those who suggest otherwise are simply wrong."

Leahy said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday that he supports Holder. Leahy said he believed that putting those charged with attacking the United States on trial .

"I think that Eric Holder, our attorney general, is right; I think the president is right in holding the trials of these murderers in New York City," Leahy told CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer. "What we're saying to the world is, the United States acts out of strength, not out of fear."

Also at the hearing, Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, got assurances from the attorney general that he would support the Obama administration helping pay any extra security costs incurred by city authorities to help safeguard the terror trials.