Axelrod: No decision on terror trial move


A flurry of kremlinology has appeared since the New York Times announced on Friday (based on an unnamed administration source who said that they were “considering other options”) that the Obama administration have given up their plans to hold the 9/11 trials here in New York (U.S. Drops Plan for a 9/11 Trial in New York City). One major theme has been that their decision may signal an end to the idea of using civilian courts.

Now it seems as if none of that is a done deal. White House Aide and long-time Obama message advisor David Axelrod told David Gregory this morning on Meet the Press that no decision has been made about the venue, but the administration is holding firm on civilian trials.

MR. GREGORY: I want to begin with some news this morning. First, the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind 9/11, has the administration reversed its stance and decided not to transfer him to New York for trial?

MR. AXELROD: We’ve made no decisions on that, David. I’ve seen the reports. We’ve made no decisions on that yet. Look, here’s the situation: The attorney general and the Defense Department worked out protocols about how these cases should be handled. Under those protocols, the attorney general decided to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed back to New York to stand trial for his crime for the murder of 3,000 innocent people, and he wanted to do it near the, the site of, of the crime itself…

The local authorities were receptive to that at the time. Since then, as you know, the mayor and the police chief and others have changed their minds and said they thought it would be too logistically difficult and too expensive. We have to take that into consideration, and we’re doing that now.

MR. GREGORY: What does the president think? New York in or out?

MR. AXELROD: The president believes that we need to take into consideration what the local authorities are saying. But he also believes this: He believes that we ought to, to, to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and all others who are involved in terrorist acts to justice swift and sure in the American justice system.

Opponents of civilian trials can take comfort in the fact that they apparently will not involve the traditional presumption of innocence. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs announced this morning on CNN that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “is going to meet justice and he’s going to meet his maker.” Less comforting to advocates of the military tribunal approach: Gibbs said he understands the logistical concerns about a New York trial, but “We want to see this man tried and brought to justice in the place in which the crime was committed.”

This is a bit of a setback for Mssrs. Bloomberg and Kelly, who were popularly credited, along with downtown real estate owners and Community Board 1, with killing the plan by objecting to it.

None of this, of course, means that practical obstacles to the trials have disappeared, or that the trials will eventually happen here. Local politicians have come out in droves for moving the trial (predictably, Ford and Gillibrand are squabbling over which one is against them in the most against way). Congressional Republicans are planning to try to block any funds Obama requests to spend on increased security for a civilian prosecution in an attempt to force the trials into a military tribunal.

If the Manhattan trials do fall through, the Mayor of Newburgh has put in a bid for them, along with the $200 million dollars the administration plans to spend on keeping them secure.

The Times, for their part, editorialized yesterday that the Obama administration was wrong to back down

But caving in to political pressure and agreeing to move the trial, as The Times reported the Obama administration has decided to do, was the wrong move. New York was the right place for this trial. This is where the attack occurred, and New Yorkers should have been proud to see justice done here. The United States District Court in Manhattan has a long, successful record of trying terrorists, including the ones responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

President Obama was right to move Mr. Mohammed and four other high-profile terrorism suspects out of the jurisdiction of military tribunals. President George W. Bush’s decision to hold prisoners outside the law and then attempt to try them in rigged military courts was legally wrong, and hugely damaging to American values and this country’s global image.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg first supported the president’s decision to hold the trial in New York, but reversed field after looking at the costs of what could be a very long process. Local business leaders protested, as did politicians with a variety of motives — none really sound and some profoundly cynical.

So at least someone over there is pleased.

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