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Media Conference Call: Trial of Accused 9/11 Terrorists (Audio)

Speakers: Steven Simon, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
John B. Bellinger III, Adjunct Senior Fellow for International and National Security Law, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Lydia Khalil, International Affairs Fellow in Residence, Council on Foreign Relations
November 18, 2009

The decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the accused mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, in federal court in New York has elicited strong reactions from across the political spectrum. CFR Adjunct Senior Fellows John B. Bellinger and Steven Simon support the Obama administration's decision, arguing that it gives the United States the opportunity to demonstrate globally the administration's commitment to fair trials for detainees. Simon says the election of Obama has been viewed as a break from the past and he adds: "A public trial ... will draw a similar bright line underneath this change in administration."

Bellinger notes two ideological arguments over where Guantanamo detainees should be tried. One is that all detainees should be tried by military commissions according to the laws of war. The other is that from a human rights perspective they should be tried in federal courts regardless of where they are captured. Bellinger supports a "hybrid model." He says Mohammed's case is similar to that of other high-profile terrorists who were tried in federal courts for "violat[ing] federal and criminal law." Bellinger also stresses federal courts are better prepared to handle Mohammed's trial because the prosecutors are more familiar with cases involving murder on a mass scale. "Federal prosecutors who actually do have a lot of experience in this area will be in the lead," he says.

The trial would also help toward improving U.S. image in the Muslim world because it is "a chance to show the world the evil, for lack of a better word, of the people who visited this terrible, terrible thing on New York City" on 9/11, says Simon. "It's important with a view toward influencing a Muslim audience that seems slowly and haltingly to be coming round to the view that killing civilians is the wrong way to protect and defend the interests that they see as besieged by the West."

Both men strongly disagree with arguments that the trial in New York could allow intelligence breaches, emphasizing that federal courts were prepared to deal with classified information.

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