U.S. Drops Plan for a 9/11 Trial in New York City

January 30, 2010
U.S. Drops Plan for a 9/11 Trial in New York City

The Obama administration on Friday gave up on its plan to try the Sept. 11 plotters in Lower Manhattan, bowing to almost unanimous pressure from New York officials and business leaders to move the terrorism trial elsewhere.

“I think I can acknowledge the obvious,” an administration official said. “We’re considering other options.”

The reversal on whether to try the alleged 9/11 terrorists blocks from the former World Trade Center site seemed to come suddenly this week, after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg abandoned his strong support for the plan and said the cost and disruption would be too great.

But behind the brave face that many New Yorkers had put on for weeks, resistance had been gathering steam.

After a dinner in New York on Dec. 14, Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, pulled aside David Axelrod, President Obama’s closest adviser, to convey an urgent plea: move the 9/11 trial out of Manhattan.

More recently, in a series of presentations to business leaders, local elected officials and community representatives of Chinatown, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly laid out his plan for securing the trial: blanketing a swath of Lower Manhattan with police checkpoints, vehicle searches, rooftop snipers and canine patrols.

“They were not received well,” said one city official.

And on Tuesday, in a meeting Mr. Bloomberg had with at least two dozen federal judges on the eighth floor of their Manhattan courthouse, one judge raised the question of security. The mayor, according to several people present, said he was sure the courthouse could be made safe, but that it would be costly and difficult.

The next day, the mayor, who back in November had hailed the idea of trying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other accused Sept. 11 plotters in the heart of downtown Manhattan, made clear he’d changed his mind.

Jason Post, a spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, said Friday night that the mayor would have no comment until the Obama administration had made an official announcement of its intentions.

Told of the administration’s decision, a spokesman for Mr. Kelly said, “We were not aware of that.”

But the spokesman, Paul J. Browne, said of Mr. Kelly: “He is of the mind that such a decision would give us some breathing room, but that New York has to remain vigilant because it remains at the top of the terrorist target list.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s remarks on Wednesday set off a stampede of New York City officials, most of them Democrats well-disposed toward President Obama, who suddenly declared that a civilian trial for the 9/11 suspects was a great idea — as long as it didn’t happen in their city.

By Friday, Justice Department officials were studying other locations, focusing especially on military bases and prison complexes, and no obvious new choice had emerged.

The story of how prominent New York officials seemed to have so quickly moved from a kind of “bring it on” bravado to an “anywhere but here” involves many factors, including a new anxiety about terrorism after the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day.

Ultimately, it appears, New York officials could not tolerate ceding much of the city to a set of trials that could last for years.

“The administration is in a tricky political and legal position,” Julie Menin, a lawyer who is chairwoman of the 50-member Community Board 1 that represents Lower Manhattan, including the federal courthouse and ground zero, said of President Obama and his Justice Department. “But it means shutting down our financial district. It could cost $1 billion. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Ms. Menin said the turning point for her came when she heard Mr. Kelly’s security plan and cost estimates: hundreds of millions of dollars a year. “It was an absolute game-changer,” she said. She wrote a Jan. 17 op-ed article for The New York Times proposing moving the trial to Governors Island off Manhattan; that idea did not catch hold, but the article escalated the outcry against a Manhattan trial.

When the Justice Department announced in November its plans to try Mr. Mohammed and four alleged accomplices blocks from where the World Trade Center stood, Mr. Bloomberg hailed the location as not only workable but as a powerful symbol.

“It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered,” the mayor said at the time. The federal courthouse had hosted major terror trials previously, he noted, and the police were more than up to the security challenge.

And so it is possible that the reversal will call into question the calibrated effort of Mr. Obama and his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., to bring the handling of suspected terrorists out of the realm of military emergency and into the halls of civilian justice.

If the message to Al Qaeda and its supporters in November was that New York City was able, even eager, to bring justice to those who plotted mass murder, the message of January is far less confident.

“This will be one more stroke for Al Qaeda’s propaganda,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.

The breakdown of support for the trials in New York might have actually been assisted by the way New York officials were first notified by the Obama administration.

Mr. Holder called Mr. Bloomberg and Gov. David A. Paterson only a few hours before his public announcement on Nov. 13; and Mr. Kelly got a similar call that morning from Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, whose office had been picked to prosecute the cases.

But by the time those calls were made, the decision had already been reported in the news media, which was how Mr. Bloomberg learned about it, according to mayoral aides.

One senior Bloomberg official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize the White House, said: “When Holder was making the decision he didn’t call Ray Kelly and say, ‘What do you think?’ He didn’t call the mayor and say, ‘What would your position be?’ They didn’t reach out until it got out there.”

Soon, though, New York real estate executives were raising concerns with the Obama administration, according to Mr. Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York.

Mr. Spinola said he had received calls and e-mail messages from the board’s members. Residential real estate brokers were “going berserk,” as he put it, worried that they would no longer be able to sell apartments downtown.

Commercial brokers feared they would not be able to lease office space.

On Nov. 20, the Friday before Thanksgiving, the real estate executive William C. Rudin held a meeting at his office to talk about issues with Jim Messina, a deputy White House chief of staff, according to Mr. Spinola.

The meeting was not on the topic of the trials, but the executives pressed their case anyway.

Mr. Spinola said that he told Mr. Messina, “I hope that the White House was going to put a ton of money into it.”

A turning point came when Mr. Kelly spoke before a large business crowd at a New York Police Foundation breakfast on Jan. 13.

After addressing the year’s highlights in crime reduction, he turned to the 9/11 trials, offering a presentation that was direct and graphic.

“Whatever the merits of holding the trial in Lower Manhattan,” he said, “it will certainly raise the level of threat.” He said that “securing this area and the entire city for the duration of this event promises to be an extremely demanding undertaking.”

He offered a detailed account of his department’s security plan, with inner and outer perimeters, unannounced vehicle checkpoints, countersniper teams on rooftops, and hazardous-materials and bomb squad personnel ready to respond. And he cited the hundreds of millions it would cost to protect the city during the trials.

“The entire audience issued a collective gasp when it became clear that this was an event that could go on for years,” said one guest, Kathryn S. Wylde, president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York City.

The unhappiness grew. During the Real Estate Board of New York’s annual gala, held on Jan. 21, Mr. Bloomberg dropped by, and Bloomberg officials said they got “an earful on that” from real estate executives, all of whom were angry and concerned about the plan.

A week later, his public opinion had changed, and so, it seems, had the ultimate destination of the trials.

Jet Diverted in Scare

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Continental Airlines jet flying from Newark, N.J., to Bogota was diverted to Jacksonville, Fla., on Friday over concerns that a passenger was on the government’s watch list of suspected terrorists banned from commercial flights. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

The passenger — one of 75 — was cleared by the F.B.I. and permitted to continue on the flight to Colombia, the Transportation Security Administration said.

Reporting was contributed by Al Baker, David W. Chen, Christine Haughney and William K. Rashbaum.

A circular argument

It's a circular argument:

It's claimed to be necessary to spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to provide the security necessary to conduct the trial because the US Government argues that there exists a terrorist organisation in the world, of which the accused Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was a mastermind, that committed (or attempted to commit) acts of terrorism such as 9/11, 7/7, 25/12 and has the intention and ability to commit more.

So, because the claimed trouble and expense of protecting the trial is so prohibitive, the claim of the threat posed by KSM and his alleged followers won't be tested fairly in an open public trial.


One more time Obama folds under pressure

1-don't close the torture prisons
2-can't stop the wars
3-rendition is still an option
4-universal health care is off the table

What's next? A civilian trial in a military base? No longer a civilian trial? Maybe an apology to the supreme court? Forget the reform of the speculating banking system? Everyday our agent of change only changes his mind as he runs into the big gears of corruption. What are we afraid of this time...Maybe KSM will use his inside connections to plant demo charges in the courthouse during a power shut down? Well then maybe we should be afraid....stranger things have happened.

What's the difference

between an Obama administration and a Palin administration?


venue considerations

I wonder to what extent rules about grand juries in NYC played a role here. I've heard it asserted that a grand jury can take over an investigation, e.g., tell the prosecutor 'thanks, but we will take it from here.' That might be the last thing the powers that be want.

Has anyone else heard this point?