Holder: Sept. 11 plotters could have been on death row by now — if not for politics

In this photo of a courtroom sketch, the self-proclaimed terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed attends the pretrial hearings at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, on Aug. 19, 2013. Janet Hamlin. AP

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder said on Monday that accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators would already have been convicted and set for execution if they had been tried in civilian courts as Holder wanted in 2009.

At a news conference about corporate fraud, Holder was asked if he stood by his decision to try the men in federal court in New York, a plan the Obama administration reversed in the face of opposition from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and lawmakers in Washington.

"The opposition was largely political in nature, and I think this is an example of what happens when politics gets into matters that ought to be simply decided by lawyers and national security experts," said Holder, the chief U.S. law enforcement officer.

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, on Sept. 30. Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP

Mohammed and the four others instead face a proceeding in a military commission at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for allegedly training and funding the hijackers who flew planes into the Pentagon and New York's World Trade Center. They could be executed if convicted of charges that include murdering 2,976 people.

Military prosecutors hope to start a trial in January 2015, but no date has been set.

Holder said that fears had been exaggerated about trying the men in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Before the Obama administration scuttled the plan, Bloomberg in early 2010 warned the cost of the trials would top $200 million a year due to security concerns.

"Had we gone along the path that I announced at that time, we would not have had to close down half of Manhattan, it wouldn't have cost $200 million a year and the defendants would be on death row as we speak," Holder said.

He said he did not mean "to be egocentric about this, but that I was right."

A spokesman for Bloomberg's office declined to comment on Holder's remarks.