Closing Guantanamo Bay part of military trial deal for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, four 9/11 thugsBY Kenneth R. Bazinet and James Gordon Meek
March 6, 2010
WASHINGTON - Khalid Shaikh Mohammed won't be returning to the scene of his unspeakable crime.
Feds involved in security preparations for lower Manhattan's Foley Square courthouse have been quietly ordered to cease all preparations for a 9/11 trial blocks from where the twin towers fell, the Daily News has learned.
Senior aides will soon urge President Obama to reverse Attorney General Eric Holder and prosecute the terrorists in a military courtroom, aides confirmed Friday.
A final decision on just where, and exactly how, KSM and four other Sept. 11 thugs will be tried is still weeks away as the government tries to untangle a legal and political mess that has dragged on for seven years.
"The White House is continuing to review what the available options are that would bring the 9/11 detainees to justice," an Obama official said. "We do not expect a decision for weeks as the review process is ongoing."
Word that the White House was leaning toward the military course came after Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, ordered Justice Department officials to conduct an exhaustive survey of potential sites to conduct a civilian trial in a federal courthouse.
Officials are believed still to be looking at such sites as a state prison in western Illinois that may be converted to house Guantanamo prisoners. The Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va., also may remain an option.
"We're very flexible - all we need is a courtroom," said one U.S. official.
"No decisions have been made," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated. "This hasn't gone up to the President yet. "
Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.), an opponent of a Manhattan trial, hailed the news that the civilian trial may be dead.
"The President is now confronting reality, and he's finding out that the campaign trail is different from the reality of the war against terror," King said.
The White House has heard loud and clear the complaints of city officials, but some Obama insiders feel the 9/11 family members who wanted the trial here should have a voice in the decision on where it winds up.
"I think people do feel helpless on this one," an influential 9/11 relative agreed.
Still, it is increasingly likely the administration will be forced to keep the defendants in the military commission system for trial.
"The city doesn't want it, and Congress is not going to fund it, and the military tribunals are an option," an Obama aide said.
Republicans have claimed it will be easier to execute the Al Qaeda plotters, and they won't have a propaganda platform in the military system. But a Defense Department official sympathetic to the military option scoffed.
"They will have their say" at the tribunal, particularly if they defend themselves, as KSM did in a Guantanamo Bay proceeding, the source said.
A military trial probably will be part of a deal with increasingly influential GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - an Air Force judge advocate - in exchange for his help in finally closing Gitmo's terrorist prison.
Military prosecutors - who dismissed charges against Mohammed and his four henchmen last January in anticipation of a federal indictment in New York - are eager to start over with "new charges and a new arraignment" as soon as Obama signs a military order, an official said.
The military justice system for terrorists set up by ex-President George W. Bush has been a dismal failure - but Obama signed a bill last year improving it.
"We can't say for sure" if KSM or the others will be executed even if they plead guilty, the Defense official said.
Under the old system, the 9/11 five tried to be "martyred" by execution but were told by a military judge they would not be put to death if they admitted their crimes.
New prosecution rules awaiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates' signoff would mean KSM will face a death penalty trial if he pleads guilty, and a death verdict by a military jury would have to be unanimous.
"We can't just take KSM's word for it. The government still has a responsibility to show evidence," the official said.