Published March 05, 2010
The prospect of moving the trial for suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed out of criminal court and into a military tribunal is just one piece of a national security puzzle being assembled by the Obama administration, officials say.
The administration is considering reversing its decision to try Mohammed and four others accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks in civilian court, moving them instead to a military court -- either at Guantanamo or a military facility within the U.S.
A senior administration official deeply involved in White House deliberations told Fox News that a decision on the case is "weeks away" and will not be made or announced before President Obama leaves for Guam, Indonesia and Australia on March 18.
While the decision could finally enable Obama to close the terrorist detainee center at Guantanamo Bay, it also is linked to a "basket of other issues," a senior administration official told Fox News. That includes obtaining congressional funding for the Thomson Maximum Security prison in Illinois -- the designated successor to Guantanamo Bay as a detainee holding facility. The administration also hopes to obtain funding for other terror trials in civilian courts.
Another issue linked to the 9/11 case is producing a law on the permanent detention of terror suspects who are too dangerous to be released but unable to be tried in civilian or military courts because evidence collected was tainted by harsh interrogation tactics or for other reasons.
The decision on the 9/11 trial "is part of a basket of issues that is bigger than one case or one decision about one case," the senior official told Fox News.
The biggest issue could be how the decision will sit with his supporters on the left. Such a move could prove poisonous for the administration's relationship with its liberal base.
The president has already disappointed his supporters by maintaining military tribunals after temporarily suspending them, by continuing the option of indefinite detention and by faltering in his vow to close Guantanamo Bay one year after his inauguration.
"If this stunning reversal comes to pass, President Obama will deal a death blow to his own Justice Department, not to mention American values," American Civil Liberties Union Director Anthony Romero said in a written statement.
"Hope and change will not rectify the damage today to the United States' international reputation," Amnesty International USA Director Larry Cox said.
But reversing course on the plan to try suspected terrorists in criminal courtrooms could be pitched as a concession made for the greater goal of closing the Guantanamo detention camp. A source familiar with the administration's policy review told Fox News that Obama is testing the waters to see how far he can push his base without sending it over the edge, for the sake of an elusive bipartisan bargain that would ultimately allow him to follow through on his pledge one day after his inauguration to close the Cuban military prison for good.
The venue for the Sept. 11 terror suspects has emerged as somewhat of a bargaining chip in that effort. Republicans, namely Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who are willing to support Obama's effort to close Guantanamo are fiercely opposed to civilian trials.
Asked on Friday whether the view exists that turning over the suspects to tribunals would help free up funding in Congress to close Guantanamo, Graham told Fox News, "Not that I'm aware of."
But he said sending the suspects to tribunals would demonstrate "good leadership," and he suggested it could grease the wheels toward closing the Cuba-based camp.
"I have advocated the closing of Guantanamo Bay if you can do it safely," Graham said. Trying the suspects in tribunals "would give us a chance to close Guantanamo safely."
Graham said more research will need to be done to determine what to do with those detainees the administration has determined are too dangerous to be released or tried.
The Washington Post reported Friday, citing unnamed administration officials, that top advisers are close to a decision recommending that the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks be prosecuted in a military tribunal.
According to the report, the president's advisers have grown increasingly wary of bipartisan opposition to the planned civilian federal trial for Mohammed and his four alleged conspirators in New York City, mere blocks from where nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in the attack on the World Trade Center.
White House officials told Fox News that no final decision has been made. The administration has been considering tribunals for the alleged Sept. 11 attack plotters for several weeks. At issue is both the location of the planned trial and the venue.
First the administration would have to decide whether to have the trials in New York City, and then whether to hold them in a tribunal elsewhere. A military tribunal would have to be held at a military base -- and Guantanamo Bay itself is one option. Other possibilities are Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge and Major Garrett contributed to this report.