Va., N.Y. Districts Vie for 9/11 Case

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, is shown after his capture in 2003.
Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, is shown after his capture in 2003. (Associated Press)
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By Peter Finn, Jerry Markon and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The U.S. attorney's offices in Alexandria and Manhattan are embroiled in intense competition over the opportunity to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and his co-conspirators, according to Justice Department and law enforcement sources.

At a time when many state officials are determined to keep suspected terrorists out of their jurisdictions, federal prosecutors are in a hidden struggle to have potentially history-making trials held in their districts. "There's competition on all of these guys, and that's to be expected -- these are big cases," said a Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity Monday because of the sensitivity of the deliberations.

The two U.S. attorney's offices have a history of competition, ever since Alexandria prosecutors were chosen to make the case against Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person involved in the Sept. 11 conspiracy to be tried in the United States. The competition over Moussaoui grew so intense that it led to a compromise: The case was brought in Alexandria by a Justice Department team that included a New York-based prosecutor.

In an effort to meet President Obama's commitment to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by January, the Justice Department has begun to send the files of approximately 30 detainees to U.S. attorney's offices in the District of Columbia, Alexandria and the Southern and Eastern districts of New York. Federal prosecutors are being asked to determine which terrorism suspects can be tried in federal criminal court, according to Justice Department sources.

Each office is also working with Defense Department prosecutors to decide if some cases should be assigned to military commissions. The Obama administration suspended the work of the commissions in January, but has since said it will revive them with modifications that would give detainees greater legal rights.

"There is a presumption, where feasible, that referred cases will be prosecuted in federal court," said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, speaking before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee last week. "But that presumption can be overcome if other compelling factors make it more appropriate to prosecute in the commission."

Justice Department officials expect each federal jurisdiction to end up with a handful of high-profile criminal trials. The department, for instance, is considering assigning to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia the case of Riduan Isamuddin, better known by his nom de guerre, Hambali. The Indonesian is accused of leading the Jemaah Islamiah group, an organization allied with al-Qaeda that is accused of staging the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing.

Hambali was captured in Thailand in August 2003 and was held in a secret CIA prison until September 2006, when he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay. He is among 16 detainees held at the top-secret Camp 7 at Guantanamo Bay, but he has never been charged in a military commission. There are 229 detainees remaining at the prison.

Federal prosecutors recently met with the District's chief judge, Royce C. Lamberth, to discuss the prospect of some detainees being tried in his courthouse, the sources said. Lamberth could not be reached for comment Monday.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. met separately with the U.S. attorneys from various jurisdictions last week amid what two law enforcement sources described as fierce lobbying over the assignment of cases.

"Holder was brought in to hear people out," said one law enforcement source in Virginia. Officials at the U.S. attorney's offices in Alexandria, the District and New York declined to comment.

The Associated Press reported Monday that Holder had met with the officials, but that account did not specify that prosecutors were vying for certain cases.

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