Video: Obama on trials, Afghan war

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    >> al, thank you.

    >>> and now to president obama 's one-on-one interview with nbc news. he sat down with chuck todd overnight. chuck, good morning.

    >> reporter: good wednesday to you from beijing, meredith. president obama left for had i asia trip with a slew of unfinished business in his inbox, most notably, that decision on a new afghanistan strategy. well, a week later, it does not appear the president is any closer to making any sort of announcement.

    >> i will announce my decision over the next several weeks. i'm confident that at the end of this process, i'm going to be able to present to the american people in very clear terms what exactly is at stake, what we intend to do, how we're going to succeed, how much it's going to cost, how long it's going to take. and i think that's what is owed the american people , because frankly, over the last several years, that's not what they've gotten.

    >> reporter: the president said an option not on the table, reducing the number of u.s. troops in afghanistan any time soon.

    >> part of, i think, the task here is making sure that afghanistan is sufficiently stable so that we can make that handoff. so, my goal is exactly what you describe -- creating a situation in which our footprint is smaller and afghan security forces can do the job of keeping their country together. they're not there yet. they need help from us, and that's exactly what our strategy is going to be designed to do.

    >> reporter: this decision, will it be the decision that ultimately ends the war?

    >> this decision will put us on a path towards ending the war.

    >> reporter: khalid shaikh mohammed . can you understand why it is offensive to some for this terrorist to get all the legal privileges of an american citizen ?

    >> i don't think it would be offensive at all when he's convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.

    >> reporter: pressed on whether he was pre-judging a verdict, the former constitutional law professor expressed confidence in the government's case.

    >> what i said was that people will not be offended if that's the outcome. i'm not prejudging. i'm not going to be in the courtroom. that's the judge of the prosecutors, the judge and the jury. what i'm absolutely clear about is that i have complete confidence in the american people and in our legal traditions, and the prosecutors, tough prosecutors from new york who specialize in terrorism --

    >> reporter: asked about the growing list of missed white house deadlines, including health care and shutting down the guantanamo prison , the president said he was not concerned.

    >> guantanamo, we had a specific deadline that was missed. the rest of these deadlines that you're asserting oftentimes are deadlines imposed by the media, not imposed --

    >> reporter: on health care , you said --

    >> on health care --

    >> reporter: you said if i don't impose a deadline, nothing will get done. you imposed a deadline and you're not getting it done.

    >> but internally, we understood that congress takes time. it's slow. senate is slow. that's how it's structured. those are the rules.

    >> reporter: you're going to sign health care before this ends?

    >> i think so.

    >> reporter: but it's probably going to slip past the end of the year at this point.

    >> you will not hear that from me.

    >> reporter: he laughed off the speculation about his reported weight loss , but admitted the burden of the office weighs on him.

    >> my weight fluctuates by 30 pounds, it has for years. it's unchanging. i'm still wearing some of the same stuff i did when i got married 17 years ago. my hair's gotten a lot grayer, there's no doubt about that, but i'm not sure that's just because i was about the age where my hair was going to start getting gray. having said all that, you know, this has been an extraordinary year, less for me than for the american people -- two wars, worst financial crisis since the great depression. i think we've dealt with them well and i'm confident that a lot of the work that we've done is going to be paying off. but every day i wake up and i'm thinking, how can i get those folks who are out of work right now a job, how can i make sure the people who don't have health care can get health care , how can i make sure i'm doing right by those young men and women who are in afghanistan . and i would be lying if i said that, you know, those aren't some weighty questions that i carry around on my shoulders every day.

    >> reporter: meredith, the president spent his final day here in china playing tourist. he got to see the great wall up close. he's now in south korea getting ready for 24 hours of meetings that will include north korea 's nuclear ambition as well as an unfinished and unsigned free trade agreement between south korea and the united states .

    >> all right. chuck todd , thank you very much. it's 7:10

NBC, and news services
updated 11/18/2009 2:32:58 PM ET 2009-11-18T19:32:58

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.

Tense exchange
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.


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