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Terror trial decision and re-decision = political problems for Obama

March 5, 2010 |  3:44 pm

The Obama administration finds itself in the uncomfortable position of considering whether to reverse its politically charged policy on where to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Ever since the announcement that Mohammed would be tried in a civilian court in New York City, the  administration has been caught between irate Republicans, who argue that a military trial is more appropriate, and human rights activists, who praised administration officials for fulfilling their pledge to do what they considered to be morally right.

The administration needs Republicans to help fulfill its pledge to close the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which passed its own self-imposed deadline at the end of 2009.

The Washington Post on Friday reported that White House advisors are nearing a recommendation that....

... Mohammed be prosecuted in a military tribunal, rather than in a civilian court. Their recommendation will be sent to President Obama, who will face a political dilemma.

If Obama chooses the military commission, he would be reversing Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder, who announced in November that Mohammed and four others will be transferred from Guantanamo to New York, where they were to be tried in connection with the 2001 terror attacks.

Holder initially framed the transfer decision as a moral and legal one: By moving the trials to a civilian venue, the United States would demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law.

“We need not cower in the face of this enemy," Holder told Congress, explaining his decision. "Our institutions are strong, our infrastructure is sturdy, our resolve is firm, and our people are ready.”

Obama initially backed his attorney general. He told reporters who were covering his visit to Asia:  “We have to break ... this fearful notion that somehow our justice system can’t handle these guys.”

But Republicans objected, arguing that a civilian venue would give the alleged terrorists a publicity platform for their views. New York officials at first backed the move to civilian courts, then reversed themselves in January, saying the security costs were prohibitively high.

Human rights groups backed the move to a civilian court and reacted coolly to reports that a shift was in the wind.

“This is a defining moment for the Obama administration. If he caves to the politics of fear that have dominated this debate in recent months, he will set a dangerous precedent for future national security policy,” said Elisa Massimino, president and chief executive of Human Rights First.

“The Obama administration made the right call when it decided to bring the alleged 9/11 conspirators to justice in regular federal courts. Backing out of that decision now would demonstrate weakness and embolden America’s enemies. Bringing these cases in military commissions gives these defendants the warrior status they crave,” Massimino said.

-- Michael Muskal

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