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Civilian Terror Trials --Will the White House Heed the Message?

The Obama adminstration seems to be hell bent on trying terrorists, who ought to be handled as “enemy combatants,” as criminals in civilian courts. While the White House has yet to reconsider their position, at least the administration is beginning to listen to the overwhelming, truly bipartisan pleas coming at them from every direction begging them not to hold the trials in the middle of New York City just steps from where the World Trade Center once stood.

This is a great example of how public pressure can indeed make a difference -- even to an administration that has often done what it wanted to do without regard for the views of others. Our American system, although not perfect, still works. In fact, right now it is forcing Attorney General Eric Holder to take a look at moving the terror trials out of New York City although he would forfeit the symbolism he craved by holding the trials here.

The list of prominent New Yorkers who are against having the trials in New York City is impressive. This is one issue that crosses party lines, since we are all Americans when our safety is at stake. Those strongly urging the Attorney General to find another more appropriate venue even include Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), both New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand, Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, all the members of New York Community Board One, and the list goes on. Even New York Congressman Jerry Nadler and New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver have asked the Obama administration to move the trials to another location since they would be “burdensome” to the area.

The disruption that this trial would cause in the middle of lower Manhattan is likely to be so huge it is hard to imagine. Federal judges are already being subjected to frequent security meetings to discuss how the courthouse and its personnel will be kept safe, and will try to function, when it is essentially in “lock-down” mode for these trials, which will likely go on for years. The entire city will have difficulty functioning, just given the traffic problems this will also cause as these terrorists are transported through the city. Just think of the gridlock that happens when the president is in town! Of course, and this is most important, added to this is the fact that the entire city will become a Bull’s-eye for further attacks.

There is also the issue of who is going to pay for the tremendous costs involved with these trials. The trials could wind up costing a billion dollars or more, given the current estimates. New York City does not have the money to pay for this, and Congress does not appear to want to fund the terror trials either. New York Congressman Peter King has authored legislation specifically blocking funding for the trial if it is held in New York City. Without the necessary money, the trials can’t go forward, no matter how much President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder want them in Manhattan.

It looks like public outrage, combined with a promise to keep a tight hold on the purse-strings is finally having an affect. So far the administration is continuing to stand by its decision to keep the trials in civilian court, but perhaps they will re-think that decision too. This is a first step in that direction.

Of course, if the trials are moved out of New York City the administration is going to be hard-pressed to find a site that on American soil that is agreeable to the citizenry.

Any location will have to have the money to fund the necessary fortification and security, not to mention transportation costs, etc. The names of possible locations currently being floated are Otisville and White Plains in New York State and New Haven, Conn. All of those sites are not far from New York City and are still in populated areas. The costs will be tremendous in those locations as well.

I hope that the Obama administration listens to the chorus of voices urging it to take the terror trials out of New York City. The White House needs to consider what makes sense after an analysis of all the security, financial and public interest costs involved in civilian trials for terrorists. The best solution? Admit to a mistake and instead try the 9/11 terrorists in military tribunals in a secure setting. In fact, there’s a facility already available. It’s the one where the terrorists are currently being held: Guantanamo Bay.

Annemarie McAvoy is a former federal prosecutor. She currently is a consultant and teaches Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing at Fordham Law School in New York City.