Surge of opposition forces 9/11 trial out of Manhattan
After a surge of political opposition citing cost and the heightened risk of attack, the Obama administration has abandoned its plan to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, on trial in Lower Manhattan.
The Washington Post
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Seattle Times news services
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has abandoned its plan to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, on trial in Lower Manhattan, administration officials said.
"New York is out," said an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We're considering other options."
The reversal marks the latest setback for an administration that has been buffeted at every turn as it seeks to close the military detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Its options for closing the prison had been dwindling, and without the backdrop of Ground Zero for a trial, the administration will lose some of the rich symbolism associated with its attempt to forge a new approach to handling high-profile al-Qaida detainees.
The decision comes after a surge of political opposition to holding the trial in a New York courthouse, a venue Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. described in November as the "right place."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an early supporter of holding the trial in the city, said this week that the security and financial costs were too onerous. And in a letter to President Obama on Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the intelligence committee, said a New York trial heightened the risk of a terrorist attack.
Moving the trial out of Manhattan in the wake of political objections does not augur well for the administration's plans to bring other leading Guantánamo Bay detainees to other federal jurisdictions. Administration officials have said they plan to put about 35 Guantánamo detainees on trial, either in federal court or military commissions.
Republicans and a number of Democrats in Congress have demanded the detainees be tried in a military commission at Guantánamo Bay, saying they are enemy combatants in a war with al-Qaida and the Taliban, not criminals deserving of the protections of civilian court.
But the decision to bring Mohammed and four cohorts onto U.S. soil for a civilian trial is a linchpin of Holder's tenure, and an administration official said the Justice Department would not back down on the central principle of trying the men in federal court and inside the United States.
But the administration would appear to have few good alternative locations. There was intense local opposition in another venue, the Eastern District of Virginia, and moving the case to another federal courthouse is likely to lead to a replay of the controversy that bubbled up in Manhattan.
Some officials have suggested Governors Island, a former military base in New York Harbor; the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; or Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, N.Y.
The administration also hopes to acquire a state prison in Thomson, Ill., to hold military commissions and to house detainees deemed too dangerous to release but unprosecutable. The Thomson facility could also accommodate a federal courthouse and a federal prison wing for detainees such as Mohammed.
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