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Terrorism Trial May Move Out Of NYC

The Obama administration appears to be backing off its controversial plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in downtown Manhattan. But there's no indication yet as to where the trial of Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators will go now. Guest host Audie Cornish talks with NPR White House Correspondent Scott Horsley.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish in for Scott Simon.

The Obama administration appears to be backing off its controversial plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11, in downtown Manhattan. But there's no indication yet where the trial will go now.

Joining us to discuss the overnight developments is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, for months now, the Justice Department and the White House have been fixed on having this trial in New York. So, where do things stand now?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, that's right, Audie. When this was announced back in November it was seen as a powerful symbol to hold the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed just blocks from the site of the old World Trade Center. It was a symbol that the U.S. was snapping back at terrorists but also doing so within the bounds of U.S. civilian law.

And throughout the day yesterday, the White House said it was making contingency plans to do something different.

CORNISH: Why the change?

HORSLEY: Well, there has been criticism for some time from Republicans, like Senator Lindsey Graham, who don't want this trial held in civilian court. They want it held in a military tribunal, which would mean fewer defenses for the suspects. That has not carried a lot of weight with the administration.

What does seem to have made the change is the cost concern raised by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg this week. The worry about cost and inconvenience of holding the trial in lower Manhattan, and that's now been echoed by some Democrats, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer and California Senator Dianne Feinstein. That seems to be what's carrying the day with the White House and the Justice Department.

CORNISH: But the administration is sticking with the position that these trials will take place in civilian court.

HORSLEY: That's right, unless Congress forces their hand to do something different by eliminating funding, as some lawmakers have talked about. But the administration would like to hold this in civilian court, just perhaps some location that's a little cheaper and easier to secure than lower Manhattan.

CORNISH: Now, Scott, while we have you here, we're about to hear from Senators Judd Gregg and Byron Dorgan. But yesterday, President Obama met with House Republicans at their annual retreat in Baltimore. And tell us about that. It was pretty lively.

HORSLEY: It was. The president joked, you know, keep your friends close and the GOP caucus meet with regularly. It was a remarkable session. Unlike the democratic retreat of a week ago, this one was nationally televised. So, for more than an hour we got to see the president go round and round with House Republicans, many of them somewhat adversarial. It was very civil but we did get to see this president, in some cases very effectively bat down some of the more partisan talking points from Republicans.

There was an exchange, for example, with Georgia Congressman Tom Price, who suggested that the United States could provide health care to all without raising taxes. And President Obama said that's just not true. It was a little bit like the exchange we sometimes see with British prime ministers going, you know, toe-to-toe with their critics.

And at one point Mr. Obama said, I'm having fun. The GOP may not have been quite as pleased with the outcome, although House Whip Eric Cantor did say it's the kind of discussion politicians should have more of.

CORNISH: Scott Horsley, NPR News White House correspondent. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Audie.

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