White House Changes Course On Sept. 11 Trial
SCOTT SIMON, host:
When the Obama administration first announced it would try Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in civilian court, it drew harsh criticism from those who say they don't want to see terrorists treated as common criminals. But it now appears that the White House might reverse itself and recommend a military trial.
NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea joins us from the White House. Don, thanks for being with us.
DON GONYEA: My pleasure.
SIMON: And this criticism really went from Arizona conservatives to New York liberals. Where does the case stand now?
GONYEA: The only thing we can say for sure is that this trial will not be in New York City. The administration has already made that decision at the request of Mayor Bloomberg and other officials up there, who were worried about security, who were worried that it would just shut down lower Manhattan.
What we are waiting to hear is what comes out of these deliberations that the White House tells us are under way - deliberations that could end up with a recommendation being put to the president by his senior advisers that this case be moved out of the civilian courts and handed over to the military.
SIMON: So, not a civilian courtroom in upstate New York, as was once rumored, but a military tribunal?
GONYEA: Right. A civilian courtroom elsewhere, still possible, but it looks like they're leaning toward handing it all over to the military.
SIMON: Now, this would be huge reversal for the White House, and not just in terms of politics but in logic. Because the attorney general made a very pointed and impassioned argument that this was the best thing to do with this case.
GONYEA: And the president has made that argument on a number of occasions - in interviews and in press conferences - since that decision was made. And in defending it, they have pointed out that while so much of the criticism comes from Republicans and from conservatives, they do say that after 9/11, the Bush administration successfully tried numerous terrorists in the civilian courts.
But again, they have been really, just pilloried by the political debate that has taken place. And that accusation that we've heard so much during campaigns, that they don't see this as an act of terrorism, they see it as a legal problem to be discussed. So, that discussion is out there, and they seem to be trying to respond to that.
SIMON: Is this tied up with the status of the prison at Guantanamo Bay? Because, of course, President Obama vowed to close it within a year of his taking office. It's been more than a year - and no sign that that's going to happen any time soon.
GONYEA: It's all tied up with Guantanamo. I mean, that is why we are having the discussion. They are trying to figure out what to do with those who have been held at Guantanamo Bay so long. And some of them have to come to some sort of trial so their cases can be resolved. Otherwise, they're just in limbo down there.
There has been talk that Guantanamo, the prisoners there, could be moved to this correctional facility in Illinois. There would have to be funding for that. None of that has been finalized.
But what people are watching closely is the possibility that some deal is being struck. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina - he's a former military lawyer - he says Guantanamo should be closed, but only under certain circumstances, only if it's done in a certain way.
And moving Khalid Sheikh Mohammad to the military courts might be the kind of thing that wins his support to finally close Gitmo.
SIMON: I sat next to a man on a flight in Utah this week who was talking about some of these issues. And he said of President Obama: There's a difference between being a passenger on the plane and flying it. Is that what the administration is facing?
GONYEA: That is exactly what they're facing. The campaign rhetoric, the things he said during the campaign are running into the realities of governing. And he is disappointing, especially with this talk of moving this case under the jurisdiction of the military. He is facing disappointment from some of the people who have been his longest and strongest supporters.
It is one of the challenges he will face - is how to convince those people, those people who have made up his base, that this is the right way to go.
SIMON: NPR's Don Gonyea at the White House. Thanks so much.
GONYEA: Thank you.