By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
An outcry is growing in Alexandria over a prospect no one seems to like: terrorist suspects in the suburbs.
The historic, vibrant community less than 10 miles from the White House markets itself as a "federal friendly zone." But it has turned decidedly unfriendly to news that the Obama administration might move some detainees from their highly controlled military fortress at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Alexandria to stand trial at the federal courthouse.
"We would be absolutely opposed to relocating Guantanamo prisoners to Alexandria," Mayor William D. Euille (D) said. "We would do everything in our power to lobby the president, the governor, the Congress and everyone else to stop it. We've had this experience, and it was unpleasant. Let someone else have it."
The 2006 death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted of conspiring in the terrorist attacks of Sept, 11, 2001, turned the neighborhood into a virtual encampment, with heavily armed agents, rooftop snipers, bomb-sniffing dogs, blocked streets, identification checks and a fleet of television satellite trucks.
President Obama has vowed to close Guantanamo by January, and the government is reviewing files on the roughly 240 detainees. The administration has strongly indicated that some will be transferred to federal courts, and a senior Justice Department official recently named Alexandria, along with Manhattan, as possible destinations.
Alexandria Sheriff Dana A. Lawhorne, who operates the city jail, said federal security requirements for housing suspects could "overwhelm the system" if multiple detainees are brought there.
City officials and some legislators are concerned that terror trials would take years, shut down roads and cost millions and could invite attacks from terrorist sympathizers. Business owners in the dense area around the courthouse -- newly filled with hotels, restaurants and luxury apartments -- fear disruptions amid a declining economy.
Local officials acknowledged that they cannot control the docket at the federal courthouse and said they would work with the Justice Department to minimize problems. But the resistance in Alexandria, one of the few places known for handling high-level terrorism and national security cases, illustrates some of the practical complexities facing the president's plan to shutter the controversial detention facility.
The Guantanamo detainees include the five accused planners of Sept. 11, among them former al-Qaeda operations chief Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Putting detainees on trial in Alexandria would mean moving them from an isolated island prison 90 miles from Florida to a neighborhood brimming with residents, thousands of federal employees and the new Westin Alexandria Hotel 190 feet from the courthouse door.
"It would be a disaster," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who co-sponsored legislation to ban the use of federal funds to transfer detainees to Virginia detention facilities, one of at least 10 similar bills filed by Republicans nationwide. In a March 13 letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Wolf questioned how officials would protect the community.
Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the administration is reviewing how to handle Guantanamo detainees. "It's far too early to speculate on the final disposition of any particular detainee at this time, much less begin speculating about potential judicial districts for prosecution," he said. He declined to comment on Wolf's letter.
Matt Branigan, president of Fairfax-based Watermark Risk Management International, said that the security could cost millions and that a courthouse in a less-populated area would be safer than Alexandria.
"The concern is that someone from the terrorist side of things would want to make some statement in conjunction with the trials," said Branigan, a former senior Air Force anti-terrorism officer. He said the new development in the area "makes the security plan much more complicated. You have more locations to cover, more roofs to lock down with snipers."
When the Alexandria jail, an eight-story red-brick building adjacent to the Capital Beltway near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, opened in 1987, the area had been a city dump.
"The idea wasn't that you were going to house terrorists," Lawhorne said. "It was a local jail."
The 10-story federal courthouse opened a few blocks away in 1996 in what had been a field of mud. The chief judge brought bag lunches to work because there were so few restaurants nearby.
Major terror trials were held in Manhattan in those days, but Alexandria became the Bush administration's courthouse of choice after hijacked airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Northern Virginia jurors and judges were considered more conservative, and officials thought the area was more secure.
By early 2002, about a dozen terrorist suspects were held at the jail, which by contract accepts up to 150 federal inmates, and more if it can. Moussaoui, who spent 23 hours a day inside his 80-square-foot cell, was constantly monitored and never saw other inmates. An entire unit of six cells and a common area was set aside just for him.
"It was a real hassle," said Alan Yamamoto, one of his lawyers. "Bringing even two or three or four people over there is going to be a major headache."
Lawhorne said he would discuss any requests to hold Guantanamo inmates with city officials.
"It would be a very extremely high-risk situation for us. . . . My first obligation is to protect the interests of the city," said the sheriff, who added that he would do what he can: "You can't run the other way when your country calls."
The 450-inmate jail was locked down every time Moussaoui was moved to the back of the nearby courthouse in a heavily armed convoy. Traffic was stopped as snipers watched from rooftops. The route from the jail is much denser today.
On a single block behind the courthouse, there is a luxury 326-unit apartment complex with a Fed Ex/Kinko's, cleaners and cafe on the first floor; an office building with room for ground floor retail; another office building; and a Marriott Residence Inn. All opened within the past 18 months.
Pramod Raheja, owner of Intelligent Office on the ground floor of one building, said he would "strongly oppose" bringing Guantanamo detainees to the neighborhood.
Directly in front of the courthouse, in a thriving community near Old Town known as Carlyle, the Westin anchors a virtually all-new block with a coffee bar, an upscale restaurant, a condominium complex with units costing more than $1 million and a Thai restaurant. A Starbucks is opening this month. The new U.S. Patent and Trademark Office complex, with more than 7,000 employees, starts on the next block.
"I've never agreed with people who say 'not in my back yard,' but there are just too many people around here," said Jim Boulton, president of the unit owners association at the Caryle Towers condominium complex, which has been trying to get the government to remove security barriers left over from the Moussaoui trial. "They need to find someplace else."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.