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U.S. Weighs Military Trials For 9/11 Suspects


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Now, a possible development in a major terrorism case. Sources tell NPR the Obama administration may now put the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on trial in a military commission. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other detainees had been expected to be tried in a civilian court in New York. The administration had announced that back in November. But opposition to the decision may force the administration to reverse itself.

And NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us now with the latest. Dina, where are we on this? The administration hasn't officially made the decision to move Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his codefendants into a military court, but it appears that it's going that way.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. Sources familiar with the discussions going on in the White House say that that's more than likely where this is going to end up and the White House has said publicly that the final decision could be weeks away. Now, if that actually happens, that would be a huge reversal for the administration. As you said, back in November, Attorney General Eric Holder said that a civilian court was the absolute best place to present this case.

And the idea was that putting these five men in the civilian courts would provide the evidence that the U.S. was absolutely committed to the rule of law, even with regard to the man who was allegedly behind the 9/11 attacks.

NORRIS: So, if the administration reverses itself from this idea that New York was the best place to handle this and then put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed into the military system, how would that work?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's unclear exactly. This is a policy that is still, you know, forming. But if they decide to do this, we know that these defendants would be flown from Guantanamo Bay to wherever this commission is set up. The thought is that it would be here in the United States. One of the things we do know is that if the administration decides to go ahead with this, the trials would all go back to square one, so there would need to be fresh indictments, fresh rulings on the admissibility of evidence, fresh motions from the council and the clock on all of this would literally go back to zero.

NORRIS: So, back in November, as we noted, the attorney general had said that the civilian courts were absolutely the best venue. What happened?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he did say that. And then a number of confluence of events happened. The first was that Mayor Bloomberg of New York, who was initially very supportive of the idea of bringing those men to New York's Southern District to go on trial in a federal court, announced in January that he didn't think that New York was such a good venue for the trial after all. And this really caught the administration by surprise. Now, the mayor was under a great deal of pressure from business leaders who said that the security necessary for the trial would essentially shut down lower Manhattan.

And then Republicans in Washington began using this is a brickbat against the Obama administration's entire counterterrorism policy. These were the forces, essentially, that the administration has had to contend with since November of last year.

NORRIS: If the administration does reverse course, what are the possible ramifications?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, in a strange way, if these men are tried in a military court, some people say that it would hand al-Qaida a victory. It doesn't see itself as a band of criminals. Al-Qaida sees itself as a warrior in a giant struggle against nonbelievers. So, in this sense, the argument goes, putting them in military commissions kind of elevates their status. Now, the flip side is that critics have said that a civilian trial in New York would give al-Qaida a global platform for their cause and there's some concern that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would use that to his advantage.

NORRIS: Now the Guantanamo Bay prison plays a big role in all this. President Obama had vowed to close it within a year of his taking office. He missed that deadline. Dina, how does this possible shift to a military tribunal help with that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, right now the Obama administration needs Congress if it wants to close Guantanamo. Among other things, Congress has to provide the money to pay for a facility in the U.S. where the detainees could be held once they're moved from Guantanamo. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina is a former military lawyer, and he's been a really key player in all of this. And he favors closing Guantanamo if it's done in a certain way.

And for him, the key issue is whether to treat detainees as criminals or as enemy combatants. And he says they ought to be seen as enemy combatants, and he's introduced legislation toward that end. So, moving Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to military course might win the senator support on closing Guantanamo.

NORRIS: Thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston
Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
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