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Swift justice? Still no decision on trial for accused 9/11 terrorists

By Jim Barnett, CNN
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9/11 suspects wait for day in court
  • Eric Holder: "The nation has had no higher priority" than bringing 9/11 plotters to justice
  • Five suspects are charged before military commissions with participating in the 9/11 plot
  • The detainees are being held at the military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
  • Attorney general has said several times that he hopes to announce a trial location soon

Washington (CNN) -- Attorney General Eric Holder gripped a black folder in his right hand as he walked briskly into the Justice Department's briefing room on the morning of Friday the 13th in November 2009.

Cameras clicked with his every step. A roomful of reporters were there to hear how the U.S. government planned to prosecute the 9/11 defendants in federal court.

Holder stepped to the podium and pulled out his prepared remarks.

"Good morning," he began, then pursed his lips slightly and clenched his jaw. "Just over eight years ago on a morning our nation will never forget, 19 hijackers working with a network of al Qaeda conspirators around the world launched the deadliest terrorist attacks our country has ever seen."

Holder told a live cable TV audience, "The nation has had no higher priority" than bringing those who planned and plotted the 9/11 attacks to justice."

For months, prosecutors at the Department of Justice had been working diligently with the Pentagon to review the case of each detainee being held at the military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

What's happened to that "priority?" The country, the world and the defendants are still waiting.

Back in 2009, Holder called the Justice Department's decision to prosecute a "step forward."

"Today, I am announcing that the Department of Justice will pursue prosecution in federal court of the five individuals accused of conspiring to commit the 9/11 attacks," Holder said.

He expressed confidence in the court system's ability to provide a fair trial: "The alleged 9/11 conspirators will stand trial in our justice system before an impartial jury under long-established rules and procedures."

Five suspects are charged before military commissions with participating in the 9/11 plot: Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi. All five remain in Guantanamo. The attorney general has promised to seek the death penalty for each.

Five days after his news conference, the attorney general, flanked by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, walked into the newly refurbished Senate hearing room and took his case to Capitol Hill. His audience this time: skeptical Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.

At a contentious hearing, Holder defended his decision to try the five suspected 9/11 terrorists in civilian court.

"Failure is not an option. These are cases that have to be won," the attorney general declared in closing his 10-minute opening statement. "For eight years, justice has been delayed for the victims of the 9/11 attacks."

He told lawmakers a civilian trial represents the best chance for a successful outcome.

"It is time," Holder pronounced. "It is past time to finally act. By bringing prosecutions in both our courts and military commissions, by seeking the death penalty, by holding these terrorists responsible for their actions, we are finally taking ultimate steps toward justice."

Looking straight at the lawmakers and pointing his left index finger, Holder said with a heavy emphasis on his next word, "That is why I made the decision."

As if to bring home the point, Holder concluded, "I am confident that this decision meets those goals, and that it will also withstand the judgment of history."

Four months later, on March 16, 2010, long after winter's snow had melted and the crocuses started blooming in Washington, the attorney general was back on the Hill, this time testifying in front of a House Appropriations subcommittee.

Rep. Frank Wolf, D-Virginia, looked down at Holder and asked, "When will you be making a decision on the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed issue... when do you expect that to come out?"

Holder said, "I think we are weeks away from making the determination. I don't think we're talking about months; I think we're probably weeks away."

It didn't turn out to be weeks or months, but years.

Three weeks later on April 14, the attorney general sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and once again he was asked when the Obama administration would announce details for the upcoming trials.

"Well, the administration is in the process of reviewing the decision as to where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-defendants should actually be tried. New York is not off the table as a place where they might be tried, but we have to take into consideration the concerns that have been raised by local officials and by the community in New York City. We expect that we will be in a position to make that determination, I think, in a number of weeks," he said.

There's that word again -- "weeks."

Then came the run-up to the midterm elections, and the country's focus shifted from Guantanamo to the economy, witches and the Tea Party.

On November 10, 2010, three days short of a year since the attorney general held his news conference, Holder joined Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and his Canadian counterparts at a cross-border crime and security forum in Washington. After Holder made an opening statement, a press handler stated that participants had time for two questions.

The first reporter asked, "Now that the elections are over, the midterm elections, I was wondering if you now are hopeful a decision in the KSM case might happen sometime soon?"

A final decision on where to try the suspects is "close," Holder said. Short on specifics, he added, "We have been working on it, and I think we are close to a decision."

"The process is an ongoing one," he said. "We are working to make a determination about the placement of that trial. I would hope whatever that decision, it will be judged on the merits, what is best for the case and the thing that will guide that decision."

2010 ended the same way 2009 did with assurances the administration would make a decision soon.

What would 2011 bring?

On January 20, Holder held another news conference, this time in New York, where the Justice Department was announcing one of the largest number of arrests of organized crime suspects in one day. Standing in front of a backdrop of legal books, Holder called the mob arrests "a step forward against the Mafia."

As the briefing wound down, a reporter changed the subject and prefaced his question by saying New York was still waiting for a decision on the 9/11 suspects. He sounded a familiar theme.

The attorney general said the administration is "trying to work through how we will bring to justice those people who perpetrated those heinous acts."

"We are still in the process of determining where the trials will be, what form they will be in, and no decision has been made. Nothing is off the table as yet. We are considering all possibilities," Holder repeated.

Which brings us to this week, when the Justice Department announced at a news conference the largest federal health care fraud takedown in U.S. history.

"At the risk of being tiresome," queried one Justice Department reporter as the briefing wound down, "do you have any update at all on when and where there might be a trial for KSM?"

Holder replied, "With regard to the trial location, that is something that we are still in the process of working on, and we hope to be able to announce a decision."

And when?

"We're working on it, and as soon as we have a decision I will announce it," Holder said.

And with that, Holder walked from the podium and the news conference ended.