Administration revives possibility of military tribunal for 9/11
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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration, after weeks of controversy over its proposal to hold a civilian terror trial in New York, gave ground Friday and revived the possibility of using a military tribunal to try professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Both Attorney General Eric Holder and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs did not rule out a military trial when asked about the Obama administration's options.
Trying Mr. Mohammed in military court would mark a further political retreat from Mr. Holder's announcement last year that the five Sept. 11 suspects now at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be tried in New York federal court.
The Obama administration is trying to head off a possible vote in the Senate that could stop any terror suspects currently held at Guantanamo from being brought to the United States to face a civilian trial. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is offering such legislation, after losing a vote last year on the issue.
At stake is the public's perception of the administration's handling of national security, already shaken last year by strong congressional opposition to transferring any Guantanamo detainees to U.S. mainland soil.
A Capitol Hill defeat over the trial issue could embolden the GOP minority to raise national security concerns in the midterm elections later this year. The prospect of such a vote also could become a test of how many moderate Democrats have abandoned Mr. Obama on the issue.
White House officials on Friday said Mr. Obama and top advisers will play a direct role in deciding how to prosecute Mr. Mohammed. The administration initially said it would try the five terror defendants in New York but is now seeming to reconsider.
As a result of Mr. Holder's decision to seek a civilian prosecution, Bush-era military charges that had been pending against the five suspects were dismissed last month. Those military charges could now be revived.
The administration is reconsidering Mr. Holder's plan to put the five men on trial in a federal court in Manhattan, after local officials there balked at security and logistics complications.
"Obviously, there are efforts on Capitol Hill through legislation to restrict either the type of or the venue of a trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his coconspirators. That, by definition, involves the White House and, ultimately, the president," Mr. Gibbs said. "So since this effort has moved from strictly a Justice Department decision to something that's in the legislative arena, the White House -- and, by definition, the president -- are involved."
Mr. Gibbs also suggested that critics' opposition is disingenuous: "Some of the people that you hear now that are opposed to the trial in New York were, in November, supportive of the trial."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who has repeatedly criticized Mr. Holder's decision to try Mr. Mohammed in New York, said the White House has bungled the issue from the start. "What it shows is there was no preparation, no advance work done by the administration. It's one of the most irresponsible decisions anyone has ever made," Mr. King said.
The administration has been on the defensive about its record on terrorism since a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up an airliner landing in Detroit on Christmas. The suspect faces charges in federal court, but Republicans say the Democratic administration should treat such suspects not as criminals, but as war criminals.
First Published February 13, 2010 12:00 am