WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is conducting an intense security review as part of a plan to bring one of the world's most notorious terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay to Washington for a trial just steps from the Capitol, officials said.
Republican critics said the plan would make the city more dangerous, risk compromising U.S. intelligence methods and provide a powerful and expensive bullhorn for Usamabin Laden's alleged lieutenant, Riduan Isamuddin, and two associates. Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, is believed to be the main link between Al Qaedaand Jemaah Islamiyah, the terror group blamed for the 2002 bombing at a Bali nightclub that killed 202 people.
"Such a plan is unacceptable and I will vehemently oppose it," Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., wrote Friday in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. Wolf cited what he said were classified briefings he received about terror threats to the U.S. "If the American people knew these threats, they would never tolerate the transfer of these detainees to major urban population centers for trial," he wrote.
The plan under review at the Justice Department was described by multiple U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private planning meetings. The officials said a decision could come in a matter of weeks.
Other trials may also occur in Washington and New York, meaning the most significant terrorism trials in generations would be conducted in the two cities targeted in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In his criticisms Friday to the attorney general, Wolf said trials should be at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, or, alternatively, at what he described as remote, secure facilities far from any U.S. population centers.
Following his capture in 2003, Hambali was among the terrorism suspects held for years in secret CIA prisons. U.S. intelligence officials have publicly linked him to the attempted assassination of a Philippine ambassador and the coordinated Christmas Eve 2000 bombings of Indonesian churches. In 2007, Hambali, 43, appeared before a preliminary military tribunal and denied any connection with al-Qaida.
The Justice Department said a final decision has not been made on Hambali's case, but after news of the plan surfaced, Republicans picked up where they left off criticizing November's decision to try suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York.
"There is still no national security interest that is served by closing Guantanamo Bay," Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich, said in a statement Friday. "And there is only the prospect of new targets created by holding terrorist detainees and show trials on American soil."
New York Republican Rep. Peter King called the plan "abject surrender to political correctness," and Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond said it provided Hambali "an international stage to spew his hate-filled extremism."
Conducting a trial in the nation's capital would be a symbolic repudiation of the policies of former President George W. Bush, who portrayed Hambali as a success story in the Bush administration's CIA interrogation program.
Bush said such interrogations helped crack alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and led authorities to Hambali. Under intense questioning at a CIA "black site," Hambali revealed a plan for another wave of suicide hijackings in the U.S., Bush said.
The Obama administration already has decided that Mohammed will face trial in New York and the president has said he believes criminal courts can handle even the most dangerous terrorists.
But as Obama tries to close the military-run detention center at Guantanamo, he has found that moving detainees into U.S. courts is more difficult than he spelled out during his presidential campaign. Hambali was among 14 of what the U.S. said were key Al Qaedaoperatives moved from CIA custody to Guantanamo in 2006.
Some Guantanamo prisoners have been cleared for release for more than a year, but the U.S. can't find any country to take them. Other detainees are deemed too dangerous to release, but prosecutors don't have enough evidence to charge them in court. And prosecuting people like Mohammed and Hambali, both of whom spent time in secret CIA prisons, will likely bring numerous legal challenges surrounding the classified interrogation program.
The attorney general is sorting through the files of the nearly 200 detainees, deciding who can be brought to court and who should remain in a military commission system, where rules of evidence are more lax and prisoners have fewer rights.
Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Hambali's fate remains undecided.
"The attorney general has made no decision on forum for this case, let alone on where such a case would be tried if it were sent to federal courts," Miller said.
The Washington courthouse has a courtroom shielded by bulletproof glass. Recently, U.S. marshals stepped up security for a terrorism trial involving Simon Trinidad, the Colombian rebel leader convicted of taking U.S. hostages.
Obama is one week away from his self-imposed deadline to close the detention center at Guantanamo, a deadline he acknowledges he will miss.