White House may Switch to Military Trials for 9/11 Suspects

Source: JENNIFER LOVEN washingtonpost.com

5 March 2010—WASHINGTON—Looking to breathe life into President Barack Obama’s stalled pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, White House advisers are inching toward recommending military trials for alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four accused henchmen.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s original plan to try them in a civilian court in New York City met with criticism so fierce that it threatened to derail Obama’s promise to shut the U.S. military’s Cuban prison.

Closing Guantanamo was a signature promise of Obama’s presidency, and it is still unkept well past his original deadline of January. Failing to keep it would have huge implications for the president, both with his base of supporters in the Democratic Party and in his efforts to remake America’s image around the globe.

Holder decided in November to transfer Mohammed and four other accused Sept. 11 terrorists from Guantanamo to New York City for civilian trials. City officials initially embraced the idea. But they later reversed themselves, citing the enormous costs, security and logistics of hosting a 9/11 trial.

Republicans in Congress, including Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have proposed a ban on trying terrorism defendants in any American community.

The administration believes a civilian trial is doable, even preferable, as a demonstration of U.S. commitment to rule of law. Officials have cited the numerous terrorism trials held previously in U.S. criminal courts. They also argue that decisions on how to prosecute defendants are not for lawmakers to make.

Donna O’Connor, a spokesperson for September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a national organization of more than 200 relatives of victims of the 9/11 attacks, also bemoaned the potential choice. “Civilian trials in federal courts have resulted in hundreds of successful terrorism prosecutions whereas military commissions are an illegitimate system that undermine the rule of law,” she said.

New Yorkers cheered, however.

“It makes absolutely no sense to hold a multiyear, almost billion-dollar trial in a community that had already grappled with Sept. 11 and is the financial capital of our country,” said Julie Menin, who is chair of Community Board 1 in Lower Manhattan.

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