With a nudge from the White House, the Justice Department is now scrambling to find a new site to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged 9/11 co-conspirators. But their search may not be easy.
"We're considering our options," said a Justice Department official, amid what has turned into a full-scale political rebellion against Attorney General Eric Holder's plans to try Mohammed and other 9/11 plot suspects in U.S. district court for the southern district of New York, whose two principal courthouses are only blocks away from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. Another official said the department may issue a public statement later on Friday, although any such announcement won't identify a new site for the trial.
Justice officials say they feel blindsided by the political uproar, especially the latest statements by political figures such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The officials note that all of the New York politicos who are now criticizing the notion of a Manhattan trial originally supported the administration's plan to try the defendants in Manhattan. A second Justice official was especially dismissive of a letter signed by Jerrold Nadler and other New York Democrats urging Holder to examine other "potentially viable" sites within the southern district. "Like we hadn't done that," said the official.
Precisely what options are under consideration is unclear; one congressional official said the administration at the moment is keeping its deliberations closely held, for fear that the minute word spreads, or leaks out, about a possible alternative location for the trial, then political opposition to moving the trial to that location will be instantly galvanized. But Justice officials face a big hurdle: standard Justice Department guidelines call for bringing indictments in jurisdictions where a crime was committed. That would limit Justice to trying the case in such judicial districts as Manhattan, northern Virginia (where the Pentagon is located), or western Pennsylvania, where United Flight 93 crashed. Moreover, whichever trial site is chosen would need to have a large-enough courtroom and the capability to provide the massive security required for such a mammoth event. "If I were in their shoes, I don't know what I'd do," said one GOP congressional staffer whose boss has criticized the trial.
Meanwhile, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham may introduce an amendment as early as next week that would block any federal court trial at all and force the administration to revive Bush administration plans to try the suspects before a military tribunal. As Declassified reported earlier Friday, political support for the administration's initial plan to try Mohammed & Co. in Manhattan appears to be imploding rapidly, even among some of President Obama's most loyal supporters on Capitol Hill.