WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that the Obama administration had not ruled out trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the 9/11 conspirators in a civilian court in New York, saying the city where the attacks took place was "not off the table".
Holder drew more robust backing from fellow Democrats in the Senate on Wednesday after fierce protests against his plan to try the alleged plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a traditional criminal court.
Holder had said in November the trial would be held in a Manhattan court but the administration was forced to reconsider this after public objections and demands by Republicans and some Democrats that the men face special military tribunals.
Until the hearing, Holder had received only tepid support from top Democrats and has faced growing questions about his tenure if the White House overturned his plan.
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democrat on the committee, said the Republican challenges were mostly political and were aimed at diminishing Holder.
She noted that his detractors had not raised questions when terrorism suspects were prosecuted in criminal courts under the past Republican Bush administration.
"I really find it reprehensible," she told the hearing. "I believe the best interests of the people of this nation are served by the administration — you, Mr. attorney general, and the president — having maximum flexibility as to which venue these defendants should be tried."
Feinstein and the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Richard Durbin, also noted that scores of terrorism suspects had been successfully prosecuted in criminal courts while only a handful had gone through special military commission trials.
"So those who argue that we should shift all of these prosecutions to the military setting would have to stand up and explain why this dramatic record of success in Article III (criminal) courts should be rejected," Durbin said.
Holder told the panel that a decision by the White House was still "a number of weeks away" on whether to prosecute the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators in a criminal or military court.
The White House is facing the prospect that a handful of Senate Democrats have joined Republican efforts to force military prosecutions by cutting off funding criminal trials for the suspects.
Despite the renewed support for Holder, Republicans continued their broadside arguing that the terrorism suspects captured on the battlefield should be tried in military trials so they do not receive full U.S. legal rights and that the trials would make New York a bigger target for attack.
"I think you need to re-evaluate this, I don't [think] the people of New York want this trial anywhere in their state or city," said the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Jeff Sessions.
But Holder said the trials still could be held in lower Manhattan or elsewhere in New York, but he did acknowledge the controversy that has erupted. "As I've said from the outset, this is a very close call," he said.
Still, the opposition to New York remains fierce. New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer flatly told Holder to "find a better alternative."
Holder repeated during his opening remarks that the administration would use both criminal and military trials for terrorism suspects. "This administration will use every tool available to fight terrorism," he said.
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