Facing growing opposition to its plans to hold the Sept. 11 terrorist trial in New York City, the Obama administration is considering moving the proceedings elsewhere.
Two administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Friday the Justice Department is drawing up plans for possible alternate locations to try professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged accomplices in case Congress or local officials prevent the trial from being held in Manhattan.
The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deliberation.
New York Gov. David Paterson said Friday he was "elated that our concerns are being considered by the president and the federal government." He spoke at an event to generate more help for Haitians in New York.
Attorney General Eric Holder had announced last year the trial would be held in Manhattan federal court, generating stiff opposition in Congress and in New York.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared at the event with Paterson but did not take questions. He originally supported plans to hold the trial in Manhattan but reversed his position this week, asking Holder to move the proceedings. The city claims it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to provide security for a court case that is expected to last at least a year.
Word that the administration is considering a backup plan for its most high-profile terrorism trial comes after President Barack Obama and Holder have spent weeks on the defensive about their handling of terrorism threats.
The administration has admitted intelligence missteps leading up to the failed Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, and the case re-ignited a debate in Congress about whether such terror suspects should face civilian or military justice.
Moving the trial would be a major political setback for the administration's oft-stated aims in the fight against terrorism.
The officials did not say where else the trial might be held, but others have suggested an unpopulated island near Manhattan or nearby military installations.
Obama has maintained his support for a civilian trial. White House spokesman Bill Burton said Thursday the president is committed to seeing Mohammed and his alleged accomplices brought to justice and believes that can be done successfully and securely in a federal court.
"Currently our federal jails hold hundreds of convicted terrorists, and the president's opinion has not changed on that," Burton said.
But when pressed by reporters to say specifically whether the administration was considering a new venue, Burton referred them to the Justice Department.
Lawmakers from both parties are stepping up their opposition as well. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said Friday on ABC's "Good Morning America" that it is "a terrible idea to return the mastermind of 9/11 to the scene of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history."
In a letter sent to the White House Friday, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said the terrorist threat to the U.S. remains high and that New York is a prime target. The trial of the most significant terrorist in custody would only add to the threat, she wrote.
Bloomberg said on his weekly radio show Friday that he had spoken with several "high level" people in the administration about his concerns. He said the administration understands and is "trying to do something."
"I said it would be phenomenally expensive, and it is very disruptive to people who live in the area and businesses in the area," Bloomberg said of his conversations with administration officials. "So the economic impact is detrimental, and nobody knows how big. And it would be better to do it elsewhere if they could find a venue."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Thursday he has introduced a bill that would prohibit use of Justice Department funds to try Guantanamo detainees in federal civilian courts. Hours later, Paterson said he wants discussion with federal officials on the issue of venue.
In addition, six senators on Tuesday wrote to Holder and urged him to abandon the idea.
The letter read, in part, "You will be providing them one of the most visible platforms in the world to exalt their past acts and to rally others in support of further terrorism."
It was signed by Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut; John McCain, Republican of Arizona; Blanche L. Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas; Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine; Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia; and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.
Source: AP News