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Holder: Death penalty for 9/11 suspect in doubt

Attorney General Eric Holder is interviewed by Bob

Attorney General Eric Holder is interviewed by Bob Schieffer on CBS News "Face the Nation" taped Thursdayin Aspen, Colo. (July 8, 2010) Photo Credit: CBS News

WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder says there's a question about whether a terrorist suspect such as self-professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed can face the death penalty if he were to plead guilty before a military commission.

Holder proposed last year trying Mohammed and four alleged accomplices in civilian courts in New York City. The idea generated so much controversy that it has all but been abandoned.

Sunday, Holder told CBS' "Face the Nation" it's possible to impose the death penalty in a civilian setting for someone who pleads guilty. But he said there's far less legal certainty about that possibility in a military setting.

Since January, Holder has said all options are on the table about where to try Mohammed and the four other terrorist suspects. That includes the possibility of having them go before a military commission in Guantánamo Bay, where they are now held.

Mohammed, captured in Pakistan in 2003, has proclaimed his involvement in the Sept. 11 plot and has said he wants to plead guilty and be executed, achieving what he views as martyrdom.

Holder said the Obama administration is working through issues about a site for the proceedings, taking into account the need for Congress to approve funding and trying to address concerns expressed by local officials.

"As soon as we can" resolve those issues, "we will make a decision as to where that trial will occur," Holder said.

He said "the politicization of this issue, when we're dealing with ultimate national security issues, is something that disturbs me a great deal." The attorney general said it is his hope that Congress provides money to move Guantánamo detainees to a new location in Thomson, Ill., where an underused state prison now exists.

"There is no reason to believe that people held in Guantánamo cannot be held wherever we put them in the United States. Again, very safely and very effectively," Holder said.

The need for congressional approval of the money for the project stands in the way of doing so, with Republicans and some Democrats objecting to bringing those prisoners into the United States.

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