Terrorism trials could move away from Manhattan

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Reacting to rising criticism from New York officials and both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, the Justice Department on Friday began considering sites for the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other top Al Qaeda operatives away from the shadow of the toppled World Trade Center.

The alternative locations include an Air National Guard base and a federal penitentiary near Manhattan, both considered safe and secure facilities.

Two months ago, the Obama administration had pledged to try Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in a downtown Manhattan courthouse. Justice Department officials, however, cautioned Friday that no decisions had been made about whether to move the federal criminal trial out of New York City -- or perhaps to assign the five defendants to a military tribunal.

The White House indicated that it would let Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. decide how best to proceed. But the administration continued to assert that the “high-value” terrorism suspects should be tried in civilian court.

White House spokesman Bill Burton, flying with President Obama aboard Air Force One on Friday, said, “Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is a murderous thug who has admitted to some of the most heinous crimes committed against our country.

“The president is committed to seeing that he’s brought to justice. . . . Currently, our federal jails hold hundreds of convicted terrorists, and the president’s opinion has not changed on that,” Burton said.

If the trial is moved out of New York, it would be another setback for the administration, which in recent weeks has been criticized for a series of decisions over its handling of terrorism suspects.

The White House and Justice Department have been rebuked sharply over how the questioning of the suspect in the alleged Christmas airline bombing attempt was handled. The administration has also been assailed for missing a self-imposed deadline this month to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

More significantly, Obama could find his influence on Capitol Hill further eroded if Republicans and a growing number of Democrats continue to line up against him, demanding that Holder appear before Congress and threatening to block funding for federal civilian trials.

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg initially supported the idea of having the accused Sept. 11 plotters tried near ground zero.

When Holder announced the plan in November, Bloomberg said it was fitting that the defendants be held accountable “where so many New Yorkers were murdered.”

But in recent days, local law enforcement officials warned that New York would be greatly disrupted and that security costs could run as high as $200 million a year. Bloomberg then suggested the federal government pay any expenses associated with such a trial, saying: “If they were to move it elsewhere, I’d be happy with that.”

As the mayor’s position shifted, Republicans in the Senate and House -- who are opposed to civilian trials for terrorism suspects -- issued their funding threat.

In addition, six senators sent Holder a letter this week, cautioning him that a New York trial would give Al Qaeda “a recruitment and radicalization tool for those who wish us harm.”

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) urged the attorney general to return to the George W. Bush administration policy of trying terrorism suspects before military tribunals. “Given the risks and costs, it is far more logical, cost-effective and strategically wise” to keep the captives under military custody, their letter said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also urged Obama on Friday to reverse course and relocate the trial “to a less prominent, less costly, and equally secure location.”

By law, a civilian trial would have to be held in one of the federal judicial districts where the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. In addition to the Southern District of New York, that would include the Eastern District of Virginia, site of the Pentagon, which was hit by one of four hijacked planes that morning.

But moving the trial to Alexandria, Va., would be fraught with difficulties. It would also be extremely expensive to provide security there, as the federal courthouse sits just across the Potomac River from the White House and Capitol.

“The arguments that apply to New York City apply to Washington, D.C.,” said one Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were ongoing. “It’s hugely problematic to change this. The whole thing is a big problem.”

Another possible trial location would be Pennsylvania, where the fourth plane crashed in a field near Shanksville.

Justice Department officials said they preferred keeping the trial near New York City for the highly symbolic message it would send.

Among the locations under consideration, they said, are Stewart Air National Guard Base just north of New York City and the federal penitentiary in Otisville, N.Y., northwest of Manhattan.

Another potential site is Governors Island, a former military installation in New York Harbor.

But many of the Sept. 11 victims and their families believe that safety trumps symbolism, and that moving the trial out of Manhattan -- especially out of the federal courthouse a block from ground zero -- might be best after all.

“I think there are good arguments on both sides,” said Jay Winuk, whose brother Glenn, a New York firefighter, died in the World Trade Center attacks. He said he initially favored a Manhattan trial, but has begun to change his mind.

“Nobody, especially me, wants to see them go through anything more difficult than what they’ve already had to go through,” he said of New Yorkers.

But he disagreed with those who say holding a trial in Manhattan would make the city more vulnerable. “New York is, sadly, a target. It has been a target before and it’s potentially a target again, trial or no trial.”