By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration has begun looking for places other than the heart of New York City to prosecute the accused September 11 attack plotters in the face of fierce criticism tied to security and costs, US officials said on Friday.
Critics have said the government's plan to try self-professed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators blocks from the World Trade Center would require a large security cordon, hurt area businesses and allow the defendants certain legal rights.
US Attorney General Eric Holder has begun considering other venues for the trials, according to one administration official. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said: "We're considering our options."
Holder in November decided the trials would be held in New York City, whose federal courthouse is connected to a fortified detention center with a tunnel.
"Conversations have occurred with the administration to discuss contingency options should the possibility of a trial in lower Manhattan be foreclosed upon by Congress or locally," a second administration official said.
New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters he believed the trials are "unlikely" to occur there.
It was not clear what other venues are under consideration. New York officials have suggested a military base, the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, or nearby Governor's Island, though some said that last option was not feasible.
A US official has said that no terrorism trials had been held outside of a federal courthouse and there were questions whether a trial could be held on a military base.
The decision to reconsider the location comes as President Barack Obama faces increased political pressure to refocus his agenda. Obama has been trying to push through a health care reform initiative and reduce the high unemployment rate.
Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed his support for holding the trials in Manhattan.
"I can tell you I would prefer if it was done elsewhere, I think some of the suggestions make sense, like a military base, because it's far away from people and you can provide security easily," Bloomberg said on Friday on his weekly radio show.
He said he called the Obama administration on Thursday to express his concerns and acknowledged ultimately the city could handle the trials. "I will be as supportive as, and the city will be, as supportive as we can, period," Bloomberg said.
New York Governor David Paterson has also been hesitant about the trials in Manhattan. "We are worried about the effects of mass law enforcement on lower Manhattan, congestion, traffic, resources that have to be spent," he told reporters.
Administration officials have pointed to past terrorism trials that were held in US courts with little difficulty, including one this week of a Pakistani scientist charged with firing a rifle at US military personnel in Afghanistan.
Those entering that courtroom have faced airport-style security: removing shoes and belts, passing through a metal detector and having purses and other personal items searched.
Bloomberg has estimated the cost of security for the September 11 trials to be at least US$200 million a year and has asked the Obama administration to pick up the tab.
That could be tough for Obama because he has had enormous trouble getting the US Congress - despite big Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives - to approve funding for his bid to close the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where terrorism suspects are held.
Republicans and even some of Obama's fellow Democrats have ramped up pressure in recent weeks against the planned criminal trials, urging that the alleged September 11 plotters be tried in military tribunals instead.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham plans to offer legislation next week aimed at barring funding for the September 11 trials in civilian court. They "should be tried by military commission - not civilian court where they will be given the same legal rights as American citizens," he said.
In addition to security concerns, some lawmakers - as well as some relatives of the almost 3,000 people who were killed in the September 11 attacks - have said the defendants could use the criminal courts as soapboxes to propagate their anti-American beliefs and turn the trials into a media circus.
But Holder testified to Congress last year that the judges who will preside over the trials will be able to prevent such a scenario.
Nicholas Valentine, the mayor of the town of Newburgh, 60 miles north of Manhattan, welcomed the idea of hosting the Mohammed trial - and the millions of federal dollars that could come with it.
"We're so low on the radar screen. We do not have the type of density, nor do we have the attraction that New York City has," Valentine told Reuters.