Obama will help select location of Khalid Sheik Mohammed terrorism trial

By Anne E. Kornblut and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010

President Obama is planning to insert himself into the debate about where to try the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, three administration officials said Thursday, signaling a recognition that the administration had mishandled the process and triggered a political backlash.

Obama initially had asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to choose the site of the trial in an effort to maintain an independent Justice Department. But the White House has been taken aback by the intense criticism from political opponents and local officials of Holder's decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a civilian courtroom in New York.

Administration officials acknowledge that Holder and Obama advisers were unable to build political support for the trial. And Holder, in an interview Thursday, left open the possibility that Mohammed's trial could be switched to a military commission, although he said that is not his personal and legal preference.

"At the end of the day, wherever this case is tried, in whatever forum, what we have to ensure is that it's done as transparently as possible and with adherence to all the rules," Holder said. "If we do that, I'm not sure the location or even the forum is as important as what the world sees in that proceeding."

Administration officials said the president's involvement has to do with securing congressional funding for the costly trial before bipartisan efforts to strip financing for the case against Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators gain greater momentum. They said it was a matter of national security, not just politics.

Senior White House officials said that the decision to try Mohammed in New York was Holder's and that no single person in the administration was responsible for handling the politics of that choice. In an effort to avoid leaks, Holder kept the decision close in the days leading up to his Nov. 13 news conference, calling New York officeholders that day to inform them. Several New York officials said they have dealt exclusively with Holder, first during the rollout of the announcement and more recently as he struggles to find another venue.

Officials acknowledged that Holder does not deserve all the blame for the political problems. "Their building represents what they do -- justice. It's rightly not staffed with people who have to worry about congressional relations or federal funding," one White House official said.

At first blush, the choice of New York made sense to many lawyers inside and outside of the administration: Judges and prosecutors there have handled serious national security trials, the Manhattan courthouse and tunneled detention complex would not require any of the suspects to move aboveground, and security costs would be lower than building a new facility.

But several sources questioned why the administration -- especially one replete with political veterans -- has not done a better job of managing the complex politics of national security.

"How did this happen?" asked Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). "It was being blind to political realities, and I don't mean partisan politics. I mean the real, legitimate grass-roots feelings. They misread it."

Managing the politics of terrorism has not been assigned to one person at the White House. Many people are dealing with the issue of the trial, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, senior adviser David Axelrod and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Increasingly, Phil Schiliro, the head of White House legislative affairs, has worked on building support in Congress. The new White House counsel, Bob Bauer, is also managing "a central piece of it," one senior White House adviser said.

Word of Obama's increased attention to one of the biggest national security issues he inherited comes as disagreement grows over the Justice Department's use of federal courts to try accused terrorists. George W. Bush's administration employed that strategy at least 100 times, but the public mood has shifted since the Mohammed trial announcement and a thwarted Christmas Day airline bombing plot.

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