Sept. 11 Trial May Shift To Military Court

The Obama administration is close to deciding that the admitted mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks will be tried in a military court, reversing plans to hold the trial in a civilian court in New York. Fierce opposition arose to trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Guantanamo detainees in a civilian courtroom in Manhattan.

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We're tracking a development in a major terrorism case. The Obama administration is close to deciding that the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks will be tried in a military court. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other detainees have been expected to be tried in a civilian court in New York. Opposition to that earlier decision has forced the administration to rethink its position.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here with the story from New York. Hi, Dina.

DINA TEMPLE: Hi, there.

INSKEEP: And I have to tell you, the administration made such a big deal of moving Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to a civilian court. It was such a signature position for them that it's hard to know what to make of this.

TEMPLE: Well, it's a huge reversal for them, for certain. I mean, the final decision - I want to be clear here - hasn't been made yet. But what we understand from some sources who are familiar with the discussion is that the administration is close to deciding that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his four 9/11 co-defendants, are going to be moved to a military court. It's likely that civilian lawyers will be able to take part, both helping the prosecution and defense. But as you say, this is a huge change. Instead of having them face charges in a federal courtroom, they're going to be in a military setting.

INSKEEP: So why would they change, given that the administration has suggested up to now that it was really substantively important here to make a statement?

TEMPLE: Well, the real turning point was when the mayor of New York, Mayor Bloomberg, did an about-face. When the attorney general, Eric Holder, originally made his announcement, Mayor Bloomberg said he was all for it. He said he liked the symbolism of it, that a trial was going to be held in a civilian court very close to where the towers came down, and New York was the place where justice should be done.

And then they did a cost analysis about what the extra security would cost, and the mayor got lots of pressure from business leaders who said the security necessary for the trial would essentially shut down lower Manhattan. And then other lawmakers began sort of weighing in, like Senator Chuck Schumer. And then Republican lawmakers in Washington used this as a brickbat against the Obama administration's entire counterterrorism policy.

You know, they say that the U.S. is at war, but the administration thinks of all of this as just a crime that can be punished in the civilian court.

INSKEEP: That was what was said against them. So people in the administration believed in the principle of civilian courts, but the practicalities overwhelm them here.

TEMPLE: That's what it sounds like has happened. Again, they haven't made a final decision, but this is certainly where it's going.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's say that it goes in that direction. Under what rules would Khalid Sheikh Mohammed then be tried in a military court?

TEMPLE: It's still really unclear. We're trying to get more details. And it seems that what's going to happen is that he and these four other defendants will be flown in from Guantanamo somewhere in the United States - unclear where that is - and then tried in special military commissions. And there will be some sort of civilian component. But again, it's really unsure what that is.

INSKEEP: Well, what are the implications? If this final decision is taken, and we can presume - this was in the newspapers this morning. We can presume that this is a bit of a balloon, I suppose, to see what the public reaction will be. Let's say they go through with it. What are the ramifications of that?

TEMPLE: Well, in a strange way, if these men are tried in a military court, some people say it could really hand al-Qaida a victory. It doesn't - al-Quaida is an organization that doesn't see itself as a band of criminals. It sees itself as some great warrior in a giant struggle with nonbelievers, the kafirs. In a sense, the argument goes, putting them in a military commission elevates their status. They aren't just thugs; they're warriors. And what's more, al-Qaida's maintained for some time that the U.S. just talks about justice when it suits them, and then changes the rules at whim.

Now the flip side of that is that critics have said a civilian trial in New York would have given a global platform for al-Qaida's cause, and there was some concern that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would use that to his advantage. And this is one of the big disagreements about where it should go.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, reporting this morning from New York about news that the Obama administration may be moving Khalid Sheikh Mohammed back to a military court.

This is NPR News.

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