WASHINGTON – The White House is considering an end to its effort to prosecute the Sept. 11 plotters in a civilian court and send them instead before military commissions in a major retreat from President Barack Obama’s pledge to overhaul the Bush administration’s detention policies.
Last year, the Obama administration announced it would try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others in federal court in New York. That step came after Obama also overhauled U.S. interrogation policies and ordered the shutdown of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing, concerns about safety surrounding the trial grew and support for holding the trial in New York eroded.
“It is politically untenable,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity because a decision has not been made. “No place wants to hold a trial.”
A return to military commissions would be a major concession to Republicans. And administration officials appear to be using the potential shift as a down payment on a political deal to speed the closure of Guantanamo by allowing the federal government to purchase an Illinois prison to hold detainees.
A formal recommendation has not yet been made to Obama, and an administration official said a decision remains weeks away. Still, the idea, first reported in the Washington Post, represents a trial balloon to test how the administration’s reversal would be received by liberals and conservatives.
While several Republicans endorsed the plan to try the Sept. 11 plotters in military commissions, few seemed convinced Friday that Guantanamo should close.
Liberal groups reacted angrily, seeing the potential about-face as a betrayal of the president’s campaign vow and an unwelcome endorsement of Bush administration practices. They said the administration risked closing the prison in Guantanamo, but recreating the same problems on U.S. soil.
“The world wasn’t clamoring to close Guantanamo because it was built on some sacred Indian burial ground,” said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. “It was clamoring to close ‘Gitmo’ because it stood for the militarization of justice in America and indefinite detention without charge. Keeping all of that preserves the essence of what people were objecting to at ‘Gitmo.’ ”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been negotiating with the White House, including with chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, on a way to close Guantanamo but ensure that the government had the legal authority to hold detainees without trial. As part of his proposed compromise, Graham had proposed moving several of the civilian trials to military commissions.
“The civilian trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and the Sept. 11 conspirators in New York City would be a zoo,” Graham said in a statement.
Graham said the potential shift by the White House was a “good start.”
“It would give us a chance to close Guantanamo Bay safely,” Graham said on Fox News.
Charles Stimson, a former Pentagon detention official, said conservatives should embrace Graham’s proposal.
“You are going to see national security hawks like me get out in front and support the administration and try to convince skeptics, members of the conservative caucus, that they need to get behind this,” Stimson said.