NEW YORK – The first court appearance for Osama bin Laden's son-in-law and onetime propagandist unfolded at a Manhattan courthouse Friday without the fuss over security that the Obama administration encountered three years ago over its plan to hold a civilian trial for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
There were no signs of unusual police activity around the court complex as lawyers for defendant Sulaiman Abu Ghaith entered a "not guilty" plea on his behalf. Public officials who had warned in 2009 that Mohammed's very presence in New York would put civilians at risk said they didn't have the same fears this time around.
"Times have changed," said Michael Balboni, a top domestic security adviser to two New York governors.
Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida's ability to launch a strike in the U.S. is greatly diminished. Other terror trials have proven the city can handle security with minimal cost and disruption. And in any case, Abu Ghaith was known as a "functionary" in the al-Qaida network, rather than a leader, and as such was far less likely to inspire reaction from bin Laden's followers, said Balboni, New York's former deputy secretary of public safety.
"The NYPD is more than capable of locking down Foley Square and making sure they can protect anything going on there," he said, referring to the part of the city where the trial is taking place.
New York City had a solid track record for handling major terrorism trials until the effort to bring Mohammed to justice collapsed amid opposition to his presence on U.S. soil. The thrust of that debate was over whether al-Qaida figures were more properly tried in a military court, but security challenges also loomed as a factor.
At the time, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he planned to spend $200 million a year on extra security for the trial, which Obama ultimately moved to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly drew up a plan that would have created a "frozen zone" in vital business districts, involving thousands of extra officers and checkpoints for inspecting vehicles.
Since then, prosecutions of less infamous terror figures have quietly resumed in New York.
Three Queens men were prosecuted for plotting to bomb New York City's subway system. An Egyptian preacher extradited from Great Britain is awaiting trial on charges that he conspired to set up a terrorist training camp and helped abduct American tourists in Yemen. A former Guantanamo detainee who was once bin Laden's cook and bodyguard, Ahmed Ghailani, was convicted of playing a role in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican who had been a leading opponent of the plan to try Mohammed in New York, said he agreed that Abu Ghaith's presence Friday didn't present the same security issues. But as a matter of policy, "Military tribunals are the proper venue for enemy combatants," he said.
"If the Abu Ghaith trial does go forward in federal court, it must not be used as a precedent for future enemy combatants who should be tried at Guantanamo," he said.
A police department spokesman said the department was unaware of any specific terror threats related to the case.
Asked about the security issue on his weekly segment on WOR Radio, Bloomberg said he had no worries.
"No street is going to be closed because of this," he said. "Would I prefer it elsewhere? I'm not going to get involved in that because I don't want to make the president's job any more difficult. He's got to decide, or the attorney general has got to decide, what they're going to do. Tell us whatever it is. We have a well-trained and adequate police department that will provide them with any services they need, if any."
Associated Press writers Tom Hays and Colleen Long contributed to this report.