Moving Sept. 11 Trial May Have Political Implications The Obama administration has long argued that the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 2001 attacks should be tried in a civilian court, but now it is considering bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before a military court. One expert says it's the president's latest communication misstep.
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Moving Sept. 11 Trial May Have Political Implications

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Moving Sept. 11 Trial May Have Political Implications

Moving Sept. 11 Trial May Have Political Implications

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Political pressure may be pushing the administration in this new direction, but trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a military commission will only changed that pressure, not eliminate it.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.

DON GONYEA: When the attorney general first announced Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would be tried in the civilian courts, there was loud criticism from Republicans and also from some Democrats. The president repeatedly explained that the U.S. system of justice was appropriate and that it can handle such cases. In this February interview on CBS, he noted that the Bush administration used civilian courts after 9/11.

President BARACK OBAMA: They prosecuted 190 folks in these Article III courts, got convictions and those folks are in maximum security prisons right now. And there have been no escapes and it is a virtue of our system that we should be proud of.

GONYEA: But at the same time, the administration would say things that seemed designed to appease the worries many Americans have about terrorist suspects being given legal rights. Here's Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about a month ago on CNN.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is going to meet justice and he's going to meet his maker.

Unidentified Man: In a federal courtroom or in a military (unintelligible)?

Mr. GIBBS: He will be brought to justice, and he's likely to be executed for the heinous crimes that he committed in killing and masterminding the killing of 3,000 Americans.

GONYEA: But political pressure kept building and now comes confirmation from the White House of internal discussions that could result in a recommendation to the president to move the trial to a military court. The fact that such talks are even taking place is being applauded by groups that have always felt a military commission was where this trial belongs. Retired commander Kirk Lippold of the organization Military Families United says he hopes the president now realizes something.

Mr. KIRK LIPPOLD (Retired Commander, Military Families United): That we are a nation at war and that we need to treat these terrorists in accordance with the laws of armed conflict, not common criminal civilian court system rules.

GONYEA: But critics of any White House reversal on this argued that it sends the wrong signal to the world. And they say it's a rude awakening for many who backed the president because they saw his view of national security as vastly different from President Bush's. Steve Clemons is a national security expert with the New America Foundation and creator of the blog The Washington Note.

Mr. STEVEN CLEMONS (National Security Expert, New America Foundation; Creator, The Washington Note): I think this is going to hit home for everyone that's been critical of President Obama for being different than candidate Obama. There's going to be profound disappointment in the Democratic base, and I think some irritation among independents that what they got is very different.

GONYEA: Of course running for president is very different from being president. That's the reality of governing. But no one expected President Obama to have a communication problem. The Brookings Institution's Darrell West says this isn't the first issue where President Obama staked out a carefully crafted position, but has had a hard time selling it to lawmakers and to the public. And West says the danger is the cumulative effect.

Mr. DARRELL WEST (Brookings Institution): He had difficulties explaining the stimulus. There's a health care problem. He can't explain climate change very well. All these things add up to the American public in a way that basically leads them to wonder where this guy is, what he's trying to do and whether the direction in which he wants to lead is the right direction for the country as a whole.

GONYEA: But for the White House, the belief is that once the American public sees the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and they see their verdict, then the process that's prompted so much debate today won't matter. But between now and that uncertain date in the future, the president will need to explain his reasoning, and some of his longtime supporters will be his toughest critics this time around.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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