WASHINGTON — Pressured by a growing clamor from New York, the Obama administration appears likely to move the trial of Sept. 11 terror suspects away from Manhattan, where it had been scheduled to take place just blocks from the site of the twin towers attack. The city's top police official says he thinks the trial won't take place anywhere in the city.
The Justice Department is drawing up plans for possible alternate locations to try professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged accomplices in case Congress or local officials prevent the trial from being held in Manhattan, two administration officials said Friday.
Though the officials wouldn't discuss locations under consideration, others have suggested Governors Island, a former military base in New York Harbor that now welcomes summertime picnickers and bike riders; the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, N.Y.
Published reports Friday said the administration had abandoned plans to hold the trial in New York City. Administration officials told The Associated Press they have not ruled out holding the trial somewhere in the city other than the Manhattan federal courthouse, but they privately acknowledge they have not found an acceptable alternative venue there.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deliberations.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters Friday that a backlash had made it "unlikely" the case would go forward in the city. He said plans to hold the trial there started to unravel after a speech he gave recently detailing the enormous costs and logistical challenges of ensuring security at the Federal Courthouse in lower Manhattan.
"It is obvious that they can't have the trials in New York," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Criticism of the plan, which had been announced by Attorney General Eric Holder last year, reached a crescendo this week when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed his earlier support. On his weekly radio show Friday, Bloomberg said he had spoken with "high level" people in the Obama administration about his concerns and they were "trying to do something."
New York Gov. David Paterson said he was "elated that our concerns are being considered by the president and the federal government." He had said earlier this week that if the cases went forward in the city, "Every time there is a loud noise during the two years of those trials it's going to frighten people, and I think New Yorkers have been through enough."
Moving the trial would be a setback for President Barack Obama. His administration has spent weeks defending its handling of terror threats following the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, a case that reignited the debate about whether such terror suspects should face civilian or military justice.
Obama has long supported trying some terrorists in federal, civilian court, while Republicans have argued that terrorists – including the five alleged 9/11 conspirators – should be tried in military tribunals where other Guantanamo Bay detainees will be judged.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Thursday he has introduced a bill that would prohibit the use of Justice Department funds to try Guantanamo detainees in federal civilian courts. Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he'll introduce a similar bill in the Senate next week.
In a letter sent to the White House Friday, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said the terrorist threat to the U.S. remains high and New York is a prime target. The trial of the most significant terrorist in custody would only add to the threat, she wrote.
When asked by reporters Thursday about the president's commitment to holding civilian trials, White House spokesman Bill Burton said Obama believes Mohammed and his alleged accomplishes could be successfully and securely brought to justice in a federal court.
"Currently our federal jails hold hundreds of convicted terrorists, and the president's opinion has not changed on that," Burton said.
Patrick Rowan, once the top counterterrorism official in the Bush Justice Department, said he expects the administration to try to find a new location somewhere in the same federal court district, which extends into suburban counties north of New York City.
"It's more likely to be a place like a military facility, where the security issues are essentially as tied down as one could expect them to be," said Rowan.
Mayor Nicholas Valentine of the small upstate city of Newburgh has offered his community as a possible location. The city has a new state-of-the-art courthouse, he said, and is less than a 90-minute commute from Manhattan. The air base there has been used in the past to fly in terror suspects facing trial in the district.
Six senators on Tuesday wrote to Holder and urged him to abandon the idea of a New York City trial.
The letter read, in part, "You will be providing them one of the most visible platforms in the world to exalt their past acts and to rally others in support of further terrorism."
It was signed by Graham, as well as Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, Democrats Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Jim Webb of Virginia, and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
Associated Press writers Devlin Barrett and Kevin Freking in Washington, Sara Kugler and Colleen Long in New York and Michael Hill in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.