Holder said he studied other options, including conducting the trial at a federal prison outside New York City. But new restrictions by Congress made even that proposal a dead letter.
“While we will continue to seek to repeal those restrictions, we cannot allow a trial to be further delayed for the victims of the 9/11 attacks or their families,” he said.
“I have full faith and confidence in the reformed military commission system to appropriately handle this case as it proceeds,” he said.
Holder’s switch drew immediate praise from Republicans in Congress.
“This is the right outcome to the long and spirited debate that preceded this decision,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in a statement on the Senate floor. “Military commissions at Guantánamo, far from the US mainland, were always the right idea.”
Human rights and civil liberties groups who had earlier praised Holder for his decision to conduct the terror trial in a civilian court in New York City, blasted the attorney general’s reversal as a setback for rule of law.
Some said the decision was “purely political,” driven by the unpopularity among Americans of the Guantánamo detainee issue. Others said it would erode US standing internationally.
“Any trial in the military commission system will carry the stigma of Guantánamo, be subject to challenge and delay, and keep the world focused on how the defendants were treated rather than the crimes they are accused of committing,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel with Human Rights Watch, in a statement.