Trial of alleged Sept. 11 conspirators probably won't be held in Lower Manhattan

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, shortly after his 2003 arrest and in a recent photo.
Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, shortly after his 2003 arrest and in a recent photo. (Photos: Associated Press)
By Peter Finn, Carrie Johnson and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Obama administration has all but abandoned its plan to put Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, on trial in Lower Manhattan, according to administration officials.

A senior administration official said no decision has been formalized, but the Justice Department is already considering other venues. Said another official close to the discussions: "New York is out."

The reversal would mark the latest setback for an administration that has been buffeted at every turn as it seeks to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Its options for closing the prison had already been dwindling, and without the backdrop of Ground Zero for a trial, the administration would lose some of the rich symbolism associated with its attempt to forge a new approach to handling high-profile al-Qaeda detainees.

The decision to reconsider the plan for Mohammed's trial comes after a surge of political opposition to holding it in Manhattan, a venue that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. described in November as the "right place."

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), an early supporter of holding the trial in the city, said this week that the security and financial costs would be too onerous. And in a letter to President Obama on Friday, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said a New York trial heightened the risk of a terrorist attack.

"Without getting into classified details, I believe we should view the attempted Christmas Day plot as a continuation, not an end, of plots to strike the United States by al-Qaeda and its affiliates," Feinstein said. "Moreover, New York City has been a high-priority target since at least the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The trial of the most significant terrorist in custody would add to the threat."

Late Friday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a statement saying a decision to relocate the trial from Lower Manhattan "is obvious."

Moving the trial in the wake of political objections would not augur well for the administration's plans to bring other leading Guantanamo Bay detainees to other federal jurisdictions. Administration officials have said they plan to put about 35 Guantanamo detainees on trial, either in federal court or in military commissions.

Republicans and a number of Democrats in Congress have demanded that the detainees be tried in a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, arguing that they are enemy combatants in a war with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, not criminals deserving of the protections of civilian court.

But the decision to bring Mohammed and his cohorts onto U.S. soil for a civilian trial is a linchpin of Holder's tenure, and an administration official said the Justice Department would not back down on the central principle of trying the men in federal court and inside the United States.

That commitment was welcomed by proponents of using criminal courts to try terrorist suspects.

"As long as these trials occur in federal criminal courts with proper due-process protections, the actual venue doesn't matter very much," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "All of our federal courts are equipped and able to handle such cases. That's where they belong, and that's where they should stay."

But the administration would appear to have few good alternative locations. There was intense local opposition in the other mooted venue, the Eastern District of Virginia, and simply moving the case to another federal courthouse is likely to lead to a replay of the controversy that bubbled up in Manhattan.

Some officials have suggested that a federal proceeding could be held within a military base, keeping with the administration's desire to hold a criminal trial while providing the kind of security bubble that would contain the impact on a community.

Within the Southern District of New York, there is an Air National Guard base near the city of Newburgh, but using it would require building a courthouse and pretrial detention center.

The administration also hopes to acquire a state prison in Thomson, Ill., both to hold military commissions and to house detainees who are deemed too dangerous to release but unprosecutable. Conceivably, the Thomson facility, which would be guarded by the military, could also house a federal courthouse and a federal prison wing for detainees such as Mohammed.

Officials said they have not decided where to turn, and the administration still needs funding from Congress to acquire the prison in Illinois. One official said several domestic locations are under review.

A "military base is not cuckoo," said one official, acknowledging the administration's dwindling set of options.

Romero said the ACLU, a harsh critic of military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, would not object to a military cocoon for a temporary federal courthouse in the United States.

Others, including relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, said the administration should reconsider its decision to close Guantanamo Bay.

"I applaud the president for recognizing that a better decision needs to be made," said Hamilton Peterson of Bethesda, who lost his father and stepmother on United Flight 93, which went down in Shanksville, Pa. "But it seems insane to those of use who have visited the pristine $40 million courthouse in Cuba that he would not use it. I would hope he would also revisit the issue of military tribunals."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company