WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday predicted that professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be convicted and executed, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testified in the Senate to defend the strategy of civilian trials for the alleged Sept. 11 plotters.
In an interview with NBC News, Obama said those offended by the legal privileges given to Mohammed by virtue of getting a civilian trial rather than a military tribunal won't find it "offensive at all when he's convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him."
Obama quickly added that he did not mean to suggest he was prejudging the outcome of Mohammed's trial. "I'm not going to be in that courtroom," he said. "That's the job of the prosecutors, the judge and the jury."
Responding to concerns from some Republicans, Obama added that that the U.S. criminal court system will be able to handle the trials.
"(What) I think we have to break is this fearful notion that somehow our justice system can't handle these guys," Obama said.
Mohammed and his accused co-conspirators are to be moved to New York for trial in a court near the World Trade Center site. They are now at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Obama has promised to close the Guantanamo prison by Jan. 22, arguing it has served as a recruiting tool for anti-American militants and has hurt U.S. standing abroad.
But few expect him to reach that deadline because of political and legal hurdles, and in a separate interview Wednesday Obama would not talk about a specific day, instead saying he expected the closure sometime in 2010.
Holder testifies in Senate
Attorney General Holder has admitted the Jan. 22 deadline will be difficult to meet, particularly because it has been tough finding countries to take the 90 or so detainees who have been cleared of wrongdoing and are eligible for transfer.
In remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Holder defended his decision to try Mohammed and the others in criminal courts and said classified material will also be protected during the trials.
Video: Terror trial...and error? "We know that we can prosecute terrorists in our federal courts safely and securely because we have been doing it for years," he said. "And at the end of the day, it was clear to me that the venue in which we are most likely to obtain justice for the American people is in federal court."
Asked what might happen if the suspects are acquitted, Holder replied: "Failure is not an option. These are cases that have to be won. I don't expect that we will have a contrary result."
Seeking to allay acquittal concerns, Holder insisted the suspects will be convicted, but even if one isn't, "that doesn't mean that person would be released into our country."
Critics of Holder's decision — mostly Republicans — have argued the trial will give Mohammed a world stage to spout hateful rhetoric.
Holder said such concerns are misplaced, because judges can control unruly defendants and any pronouncements by Mohammed would only make him look worse.
"I have every confidence that the nation and the world will see him for the coward that he is," Holder told the committee. "I'm not scared of what Khalid Sheik Mohammed has to say at trial — and no one else needs to be either."
Holder said the public and the nation's intelligence secrets can be protected during a public trial in civilian court.
"We need not cower in the face of this enemy," Holder says. "Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is sturdy, our resolve is firm, and our people are ready."
New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said initial cost estimates he had seen to secure the trials in lower Manhattan would be $75 million a year plus costs for added security around the city and additional police personnel.
Republicans have been divided on bringing the terrorism suspects to U.S. soil for trial. Many have argued they should be tried in military courts at Guantanamo because they believe criminal courts are not suited for such trials and they worry that the U.S. trial sites could become targets for attacks.
Tempers flared when Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., challenged Holder to say how a civilian trial could be better, since Mohammed has sought to plead guilty to a military commission.
"How could he be more likely to get a conviction than that?" pressed Kyl, to applause from some in the hearing room.
The attorney general said his decision is not based "on the whims or the desires of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ... He will not select the prosecution venue, I will. And I have."
Geraldine Davie, whose 23-year-old daughter died at the World Trade Center's Tower One, attended the hearing as a spectator, and said she wants Mohammed to stay in the military system. "He's not a U.S. citizen, why should he have those rights? My daughter didn't have those rights," said Davie, who lives in Springfield, Va.
Opponents of the plan, including Holder's predecessor Michael Mukasey, have accused him of adopting a "pre-9/11" approach to terrorism.
Holder emphatically denied that.
"We are at war, and we will use every instrument of national power — civilian, military, law enforcement, intelligence, diplomatic and others — to win," Holder said.
Illinois prison for Gitmo detainees?
Officials are eyeing a prison in rural Illinois to house some of the remaining 215 detainees still at Guantanamo.
Other prominent Republicans said the security risks were being blown out of proportion and that the U.S. court system could handle the terrorism trials, a sentiment shared by Obama's fellow Democrats.
Holder also announced last week that five other detainees at Guantanamo, including the accused mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole warship in Yemen, will be tried in revamped military commissions.
NBC's Chuck Todd, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.