White House: 9/11 Military Trial Possible

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
AP Photo
Updated at 4:38 p.m. ET

The Obama administration appears increasingly unsure what to do with professed Sept. 11, 2001 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after officials indicated they are reconsidering not just where he should go on trial, but whether he should face civilian or military justice.

Both Attorney General Eric Holder and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs did not rule out a military trial when asked Friday about the Obama administration's options.

Trying Mohammed in military court would mark a further political retreat from Holder's announcement last year that Mohammed and the four other Sept. 11 suspects now held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be tried in federal court in New York.

On Saturday, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said at an event in New York that "support from the local community" and the "funding requirements" were key factors in deciding where to hold the trial, CBS News reports.

Brennan made a two-hour appearance at "A Dialogue on Our Nation's Security" at New York University's School of Law.

During the event, one audience member, complaining of the "cowardly … not in my backyard" backlash against a federal trial in Manhattan for alleged Sept. 11 conspirators, asked, "Is it possible we might get that trial back here in New York City?"

Brennan wouldn't pin the administration down on a specific location for the trial.

"The administration, the attorney general and others are trying to push this forward as best we can," Brennan said. "But, again, the dependencies are there. Where's the funding going to come from in order to provide the necessary security? We need non-obstructionism from certain elements from within the government in order to move forward on this."

The Obama administration is trying to head off a possible vote in the Senate that could stop any terror suspects held at Guantanamo from being brought to the United States to face a civilian trial. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is offering such legislation, after losing a vote last year on the issue.

"These al Qaeda terrorists are not common criminals," Graham said in the Republicans' weekly radio and Internet address Saturday. "A civilian trial of hard-core terrorists is unnecessarily dangerous and creates more problems than it solves."

At stake is the public perception of the administration's handling of national security, already shaken last year by strong congressional opposition to transferring any Guantanamo detainees to American soil. A defeat over the trial issue could embolden the Republican minority to raise national security concerns in midterm elections later this year.

"Military tribunals are the best way to render justice, win this war and protect our nation from a vicious enemy," said Graham.

The prospect of such a vote could test of how many moderate Democrats have abandoned Obama on the issue.

White House officials said Friday that Mr. Obama and his top advisers will play a direct role in ultimately deciding how to prosecute Mohammed. The administration initially decided to try the five terror defendants in New York but have since appeared to backtrack.

As a result of Holder's decision to seek a civilian prosecution, Bush-era military charges that had been pending against the five suspects were dismissed last month. Those military charges could now be revived.

The administration is reconsidering Holder's plan to put the five men on trial in a federal court in Manhattan, after local officials there balked at security complications.

The White House insisted it is sensitive to their concerns.

"We're going to take into account security and logistical concerns that those individuals now have," Gibbs said. "The cost of the trial, obviously, is one thing."

Republican Rep. Peter King, who has repeatedly criticized Holder's decision to try Mohammed in New York, said the White House has bungled the issue from the start.

"What it shows is there was no preparation, no advance work done by the administration," said King.

For his part, Holder said he still expects Mohammed to be tried in a federal civilian court, but he conceded it's possible that won't happen.

"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 told The Washington Post. "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."

The administration has been on the defensive about its record on terrorism since a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up an airliner landing in Detroit on Christmas. The suspect faces charges in federal court, but Republicans say such suspects should be treated not as criminals but war criminals.

Obama administration officials counter that the Christmas case was handled no differently than Bush's Republican administration had handled similar cases.