(by Mindy Belz, WorldMag.com) – …With the Obama administration’s decision to move the trial of 9/11 plotters Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [many refer to him by his initials, KSM] and four others to lower Manhattan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s job just became one of the most challenging in the country.

It will be at least weeks and perhaps months before the detainees are transferred from Guantanamo to the Manhattan Detention Center to await a criminal trial at a federal courthouse barely three blocks from where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood. But already law enforcement and the nation’s leading attorneys are weighing in on what are likely to become the trials of the century.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced the decision on Friday to try the 9/11 plotters in U.S. civil courts rather than military tribunals created by Congress and run by the Department of Defense to try terror detainees at Guantanamo, a naval facility run by the United States in Cuba.

“I have very serious concerns about the wisdom of this decision,” said former assistant Attorney General Paul McNulty, reached by telephone Friday evening. “I believe bringing [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] in particular and the group as a whole to New York places extremely dangerous circumstances on our legal system and our law enforcement.”

McNulty said his first fear is for the legal risk of a satisfactory trial, given “the uncertainty of this approach and our ability to use the criminal justice system as a vital tool in the fight against terrorism.” His second concern is the physical risk: “These are entirely different detainees from the type of people U.S. marshals are trained to deal with every day. And you are placing them within proximity of the World Trade Center and large populations.” Those factors are compounded by the time that a trial in civil court could stretch over.

McNulty knows. As U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, he brought to trial Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker” of 9/11, who was found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans in the attacks and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2006. That trial lasted four-and-a-half years, McNulty said, with prosecutors and law enforcement putting in seven-day weeks and long hours throughout.

Like the Moussaoui case, McNulty and others expect the evidentiary phase in these New York trials to go more quickly than the penalty phase. In Moussaoui’s case, the actual trial lasted one year, but the penalty phase involving sentencing took over three years. During that time motions in the case took lawyers to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at least three times. McNulty said it would not surprise him to see the KSM case travel to the circuit court or even the U.S. Supreme Court multiple times on procedural grounds before a final verdict is reached.

With Moussaoui, he said, the evidence was “straightforward” but the challenge was connecting the defendant directly to the events of 9/11. With Mohammed and others, the challenge is more likely to revolve around the evidence itself-specifically, whether evidence obtained through waterboarding and other techniques the Obama administration now calls torture will be admissible in court. “In the end I worry about the ability to bring these cases to court and the real threat to New Yorkers and others,” said McNulty. “Think of those who might see this as an opportunity to seek revenge, to strike out at the government because of the very challenging nature of it over a very long period of time.”

Earlier in the day Friday, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey told attorneys who gathered last week for The Federalist Society’s National Lawyer Convention that the procedures announced by Holder have “long-circuited” justice for victims of 9/11. “Congress had authorized by law the military commissions and trials would’ve already begun,” he said, “but prosecutors will now have to start from scratch.”

The last attorney general to serve under former president George W. Bush, Mukasey said he expects Mohammed’s trial to be a “cornucopia of information for his colleagues and a circus for those in custody.”

Captured by CIA agents in Pakistan in March 2003, Mohammed, now 43, had become one of the most powerful members of al-Qaeda and a leading terror operative worldwide. The uncle of 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, Mohammed has been linked to plots to blow up airliners over the Pacific and a plan to fly a plane into CIA headquarters.

In custody, Mohammed confessed to planning the 9/11 attacks on the United States, even formally pleading guilty at a military tribunal at Guantanamo before those proceedings were halted by the Obama administration in February. In 2007, at a closed hearing at Guantanamo, Mohammed admitted that he personally beheaded American journalist Daniel Pearl after Pearl was kidnapped in Pakistan by al-Qaeda in 2002.

Copyright ©2009 WORLD Magazine, Web Extra posted November 16, 2009.  Reprinted here November 17th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at WorldMag.com.


1. What is the role of the U.S. Attorney General? (see “Background” below for the answer)

2. Who is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? What terrorist acts has he committed?

3. Why does former assistant Attorney General Paul McNulty oppose trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court in New York City? Be specific.

4. What experience does Mr. McNulty have?

5. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey is concerned with justice for which group of people? Why?

6. Do you think that terrorists (unlawful enemy combatants) should be given the privilege of a civilian trial and be charged like a person accused of committing a regular crime, or should they be tried in the military court set up for them by Congress? Explain your answer.

CHALLENGE QUESTION: Read the commentaries under “Resources” opposing and supporting Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civil court. Do any of the commentaries cause you to change your opinion on the trial? Explain your answer.


Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
No one exemplifies the model of the terrorist entrepreneur more clearly than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [KSM], the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks. KSM followed a rather tortuous path to his eventual membership in al Qaeda. Highly educated and equally comfortable in a government office or a terrorist safehouse, KSM applied his imagination, technical aptitude, and managerial skills to hatching and planning an extraordinary array of terrorist schemes. These ideas included conventional car bombing, political assassination, aircraft bombing, hijacking, reservoir poisoning, and, ultimately, the use of aircraft as missiles guided by suicide operatives. … (from the 9-11 Commission Report)


  • The United States Attorney General is the head of the United States Department of Justice concerned with legal affairs and is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States government.
  • The Attorney General is considered to be the chief lawyer of the U.S. government.
  • The Attorney General serves as a member of the President’s Cabinet, but is the only cabinet department head who is not given the title Secretary, besides the now defunct Postmaster General.
  • The Attorney General is nominated by the President of the United States and takes office after confirmation by the United States Senate. He or she serves at the pleasure of the President and can be removed by the President at any time…
  • The office of Attorney General was established by Congress by the Judiciary Act of 1789.  (from wikipedia.org)


Read commentaries opposing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial in civilian court at:

Read commentaries supporting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial in civilian court at:

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