Civil Liberties

White House in a Bind; Pressure Builds to Move Key 9/11 Trial Out of New York City

Obama is being forced to seek alternate venues for the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed after a revolt by local politicians, reigniting right-wing opposition to a civilian trial.

In the January 28 issue of the Murdoch-owned New York Post, an op-ed titled "Not in our city" lambasted the Obama administration -- not for the first time -- for ever making the decision to hold the trial of 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York.

"President Obama knew he was asking New Yorkers to bear a heavy burden when he decided to dispatch 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his pals to lower Manhattan for their civilian show-trials -- right?" the editorial asked sarcastically. The answer: "Apparently not."

The paper took Obama's Department of Justice to task for allegedly failing to consult with Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly before it made the call to bring the 9/11 trials to the city, with an added potshot at the "fecklessness with which Team Obama has been prosecuting the War on Terror" in general.

The Post may represent a particularly reactionary strain of conservative ideology, but there is something of a local revolt underway in opposition to Obama’s chosen venue for the 9/11 trials -- and it’s not just coming from the right-wing press. This week, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he'd changed his mind about the prudence of trying Mohammed and his co-conspirators down the street from where the Twin Towers once stood, citing the crippling costs the city would be forced to endure. "There are places that would be less expensive for the taxpayers and less disruptive for New York City," he said.

Numerous local Democrats have now taken the same stance, among them Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Advocate Bill de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who previously had expressed confidence in the Obama administration’s ability to successfully try the 9/11 suspects in New York, released a new statement this week saying, "I share the concerns from the Mayor and the businesses community, and I am open to alternative locations.”

Now, the Obama administration finds itself in a bind, forced to look at alternative venues to hold the trials, and once again in a position of responding to right-wing critics who vehemently argue that civilian trials were never a good idea in the first place, regardless of where they are held. Never mind that the federal government has a long history of trying terrorists in civilian courts: Conservatives want Mohammed and his cohorts to be tried by military tribunal.

On Friday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham announced that he will introduce a "bipartisan" bill next week that would block funding for the 9/11 terror suspects to be tried in federal civilian court. Indiana Republican Mike Pence has suggested that members of Obama's own party are likely to support it. "Unless the administration comes to its senses and abandons this absurd idea, the Republicans, and I suspect some Democrats, will abandon funding," he said.

Perhaps predictably, the New York Times cites “increased fears of terrorism since the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day” as one potential factor politicians like Graham and Pence see working in their favor. 

The Obama administration maintains that it has not changed its mind about conducting civilian trials and, as the Times puts it, the White House “is anything but eager to reopen a debate over whether civilian or military trials were the right choice.”

In many ways, however, the administration has left itself vulnerable to this debate by adopting selective support of military commissions in other cases, specifically for the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Just last week, the DOJ announced that some 50 prisoners will be held indefinitely.

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out last fall, when the right-wing outrage over Mohammed’s New York trial was at its peak: “If you're taking the position that military commissions and even indefinite detention are perfectly legitimate tools to imprison people -- as Holder has done -- then what is the answer to the Right's objections that Mohammed himself belongs in a military commission?”

There's no good answer to this contradiction -- and Obama's opponents will likely exploit it every chance they get. As it is, much of the current New York Post-style outrage is less about New York and more about the notion of trying Mohammed as a "common criminal." As Sen. Graham says, “Moving the trial out of New York City addresses only half the problem. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and the 9/11 conspirators should be tried by military commission -- not civilian court where they will be given the same legal rights as American citizens."

This is the true concern of the right-wingers who are up in arms about bringing the 9/11 trials to New York. Most of them would prefer not to see a 9/11 trial at all. As theAmerican Prospect's Adam Serwer pointed out on Friday, there’s “a potentially even more cynical motivation for [Graham’s] bill”:

Graham, a former JAG lawyer, is the Senate's expert on military law. He helped craft the revised military commissions, so he has to know that the prior commissions were ineffective, and that the new ones still might not be constitutional. Republicans have an interest in not revisiting the torture of terror suspects in open court, so preventing a civilian trial for KSM, depending on whether or not the commissions pass constitutional muster, could mean simply putting off any kind of trial indefinitely.

This certainly would align with the New York Post editorial page, which acknowledged: “Yes, moving the trials out of the city will create headaches elsewhere. But the solution there is just to scrap them.”

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. Follow her on Twitter.