Whether one is for or against a trial in New York, or whether or not one favors military tribunals over civilian criminal courts, Eric Holder’s inability to successfully guide this issue is troublesome. Step back to 9/12/01…who would think that the capture and prosecution of the mastermind of the previous day’s events would be a dividing issue? Bringing these animals to justice should be a time for all Americans, especially New Yorkers and, of course, the 9/11 families, to feel justice being served. Instead, fear and confusion rule the day.
By SCOTT SHANE and BENJAMIN WEISER
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.
The Obama administration official said the decision to back out of plans for a New York trial had broad support but had not yet been made public.
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.”
“It is obvious that they can’t have the trials in New York,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, New York’s Democratic senior senator.
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.
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