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Alternative locations discussed for terror trial

January 30, 2010 4:41:48 AM PST
Pressured by a growing clamor from New York, The New York Times and Washington Post both report that the Obama administration says it will move the trial of Sept. 11 terror suspects away from Manhattan, where it had been scheduled to take place just blocks from the site of the twin towers attack. The Justice Department is drawing up plans for possible alternate locations to try professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged accomplices, two administration officials said Friday.

Though the officials wouldn't discuss locations under consideration, others have suggested Governors Island, a former military base in New York Harbor that now welcomes summertime picnickers and bike riders; the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, N.Y.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deliberations.

Criticism of the plan to hold the trial in NYC, which had been announced by Attorney General Eric Holder last year, reached a crescendo this week when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed his earlier support. On his weekly radio show Friday, Bloomberg said he had spoken with "high level" people in the Obama administration about his concerns and they were "trying to do something."

Moving the trial is seen as a setback for President Barack Obama. His administration has spent weeks defending its handling of terror threats following the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, a case that reignited the debate about whether such terror suspects should face civilian or military justice.

Obama has long supported trying some terrorists in federal, civilian court, while Republicans have argued that terrorists - including the five alleged 9/11 conspirators - should be tried in military tribunals where other Guantanamo Bay detainees will be judged.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Thursday he has introduced a bill that would prohibit the use of Justice Department funds to try Guantanamo detainees in federal civilian courts. Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he'll introduce a similar bill in the Senate next week.

In a letter sent to the White House Friday, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said the terrorist threat to the U.S. remains high and New York is a prime target. The trial of the most significant terrorist in custody would only add to the threat, she wrote.

When asked by reporters Thursday about the president's commitment to holding civilian trials, White House spokesman Bill Burton said Obama believes Mohammed and his alleged accomplishes could be successfully and securely brought to justice in a federal court.

"Currently our federal jails hold hundreds of convicted terrorists, and the president's opinion has not changed on that," Burton said.

Patrick Rowan, once the top counterterrorism official in the Bush Justice Department, said he expects the administration to try to find a new location somewhere in the same federal court district, which extends into suburban counties north of New York City.

"It's more likely to be a place like a military facility, where the security issues are essentially as tied down as one could expect them to be," said Rowan.

Mayor Nicholas Valentine of the small upstate city of Newburgh has offered his community as a possible location. The city has a new state-of-the-art courthouse, he said, and is less than a 90-minute commute from Manhattan. The air base there has been used in the past to fly in terror suspects facing trial in the district.

Six senators on Tuesday wrote to Holder and urged him to abandon the idea of a New York City trial.

The letter read, in part, "You will be providing them one of the most visible platforms in the world to exalt their past acts and to rally others in support of further terrorism."

It was signed by Graham, as well as Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, Democrats Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Jim Webb of Virginia, and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.


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