By Peter Finn, Jerry Markon and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 4, 2009; A01
The U.S. attorney's offices in Alexandria and Manhattan are embroiled in intense competition over the opportunity to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and his co-conspirators, according to Justice Department and law enforcement sources.
At a time when many state officials are determined to keep suspected terrorists out of their jurisdictions, federal prosecutors are in a hidden struggle to have potentially history-making trials held in their districts. "There's competition on all of these guys, and that's to be expected -- these are big cases," said a Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity Monday because of the sensitivity of the deliberations.
The two U.S. attorney's offices have a history of competition, ever since Alexandria prosecutors were chosen to make the case against Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person involved in the Sept. 11 conspiracy to be tried in the United States. The competition over Moussaoui grew so intense that it led to a compromise: The case was brought in Alexandria by a Justice Department team that included a New York-based prosecutor.
In an effort to meet President Obama's commitment to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by January, the Justice Department has begun to send the files of approximately 30 detainees to U.S. attorney's offices in the District of Columbia, Alexandria and the Southern and Eastern districts of New York. Federal prosecutors are being asked to determine which terrorism suspects can be tried in federal criminal court, according to Justice Department sources.
Each office is also working with Defense Department prosecutors to decide if some cases should be assigned to military commissions. The Obama administration suspended the work of the commissions in January, but has since said it will revive them with modifications that would give detainees greater legal rights.
"There is a presumption, where feasible, that referred cases will be prosecuted in federal court," said David Kris, assistant attorney general for national security, speaking before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee last week. "But that presumption can be overcome if other compelling factors make it more appropriate to prosecute in the commission."
Justice Department officials expect each federal jurisdiction to end up with a handful of high-profile criminal trials. The department, for instance, is considering assigning to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia the case of Riduan Isamuddin, better known by his nom de guerre, Hambali. The Indonesian is accused of leading the Jemaah Islamiah group, an organization allied with al-Qaeda that is accused of staging the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing.
Hambali was captured in Thailand in August 2003 and was held in a secret CIA prison until September 2006, when he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay. He is among 16 detainees held at the top-secret Camp 7 at Guantanamo Bay, but he has never been charged in a military commission. There are 229 detainees remaining at the prison.
Federal prosecutors recently met with the District's chief judge, Royce C. Lamberth, to discuss the prospect of some detainees being tried in his courthouse, the sources said. Lamberth could not be reached for comment Monday.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. met separately with the U.S. attorneys from various jurisdictions last week amid what two law enforcement sources described as fierce lobbying over the assignment of cases.
"Holder was brought in to hear people out," said one law enforcement source in Virginia. Officials at the U.S. attorney's offices in Alexandria, the District and New York declined to comment.
The Associated Press reported Monday that Holder had met with the officials, but that account did not specify that prosecutors were vying for certain cases.
Officials said that prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia argued that they should get the case of Mohammed and possibly four others who were charged in a military commission at Guantanamo Bay with organizing the attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The Alexandria prosecutors are citing their office's experience in high-profile terrorism cases, especially the prosecution of Moussaoui.
Both local and state officials in Virginia have said they are opposed to any trials of Guantanamo Bay detainees in Alexandria, citing security issues and disruption to the life of the city. Justice Department officials also cautioned that security concerns could be a key factor in deciding where to hold certain trials. The attack on the Pentagon in Arlington allows prosecutors in Virginia to claim jurisdiction.
Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York think the men who orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Center, especially Mohammed, should be tried in Manhattan. Before Sept. 11, New York was the site of numerous high-profile terrorist trials, including the prosecution of those involved in the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993, and the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings.
Ahmed Ghailani, the first Guantanamo Bay detainee sent to the United States for criminal trial, was sent in June to the Southern District of New York. Ghailani, a Tanzanian, pleaded not guilty to charges that he helped plan the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. The transfer generated little opposition in New York.
Separately, the administration is considering the creation of a hybrid prison-courthouse complex to house those remaining detainees not returned home or transferred to third countries. Administration officials said an interagency task force has cleared for release more than 50 of the detainees, and the State Department is negotiating with dozens of countries in an effort to resettle them.
Officials said they are considering Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility in Michigan as sites for Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Republican members of the Kansas congressional delegation and the state's Democratic governor said they are opposed to the use of Fort Leavenworth.
"Housing foreign combatants is outside the mission parameters of Fort Leavenworth," said Gov. Mark Parkinson in a statement Monday. "To dramatically change its mission now would mean undoing more than a century's worth of work in teaching and training our military leaders. The stigma of what Guantanamo Bay has come to represent must not be attached to the Heartland."
Some Michigan politicians said they are open to converting a state prison to hold Guantanamo Bay detainees.
"I have spoken with local officials, who have indicated a willingness to listen to a proposal the administration might put forward," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), whose district includes Standish. "Officials from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice will be visiting sites under consideration over the next few weeks. It is important to remember that Standish is just one option under consideration and no decision has been made. . . . Any proposal must have a comprehensive security analysis and economic and job-creation implications."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.