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White House caves -- could 9/11 terror trials move from Lower Manhattan to a town near you?

January 29, 2010 |  8:36 am

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Reeling from pushback from all quarters of New York City's pulsing body politic -- community leaders, law enforcement officials and business leaders -- the White House last night asked the Justice Department to reverse course. The order: look for a new spot for those civilian trials of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other terrorist suspects.

Republicans had blasted Atty. Gen. Eric Holder's decision as soon as it was announced. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani complained that a New York trial would only give the terrorists a media-circus platform. If the trials are in Manhattan, he said, "the terrorists win." Conservatives in Washington got busy too, trying to stop funding for the idea.

And law enforcement officials were hardly silent. At an annual police charity event on Jan. 13, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly made what one source described as an "extremely powerful" speech to a roomful of 150 prominent business leaders about how disruptive and costly the trial would be for lower Manhattan. With costs for the four-year trial estimated at $1 billion, it didn't take more than an abacus to do the math -- business leaders started calling Gracie Mansion.

But the real catalyst for change may have come from a neighborhood advisory board in Lower Manhattan that voted to oppose  the idea. After that happened, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a deft politician who had first supported the trials, reversed course. "There are places that would be less expensive for the taxpayers and less disruptive for New York City," he told reporters.

Bloomberg's dramatic defection gave spine to other New York politicians, like Democrat Chuck Schumer, who called the White House and urged the administration to “find suitable alternatives." Now, Justice Department officials are said to be looking at "contingency options," such as a federal courthouse in any of the targets for the 9/11 attacks -- New York, Pennsylvania or Virginia.  And Republicans like former Gov. George Pataki, newly emboldened by the White House decision to move the trial to a different venue, are now pushing for Holder to change his mind altogether, and hold the trials at military tribunals.

As for that little community board, members there are marveling over the gears that grease democracy.
 "I'm thrilled the White House is reconsidering," said Julie Menin, a community activist, attorney and political commentator who chairs Community Board 1, calling the new direction  "a step in the right direction."

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo credit: Reuters

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