The White House conceded yesterday that it may be forced to reverse its deeply controversial decision to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks, and four co-defendants to federal court in Manhattan to face a civilian trial.
"We are evaluating [our options] based on New York City logistical and security concerns," the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs admitted, following leaked reports that top legal advisors to President Barack Obama were close to concluding that holding a civilian trial in Manhattan was no longer politically viable.
It was only last November that the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, announced plans to stage the trial in Manhattan, just blocks from where the World Trade Centre, a main target of the 9/11 attacks, once stood. An about-face now would be a serious embarrassment for Mr Holder and his legal team at the Justice Department.
But so visible a U-turn means the prestige of President Obama is on the line also. Sources emphasized that deliberations about the trials were ongoing inside the White House. They added, however, that a final decision was likely before Mr Obama departs for Indonesia and other Asian stops in the middle of March.
Taking Mohammed out of the military commissions system set up by the Bush administration and transferring his case into the civilian judiciary was designed to signal to the world that Mr Obama was honouring his promise to lift the murk that has surrounded the treatment of the "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay. It was also meant to advertise the ability of the federal justice system to deal with such high-profile terror cases.
But Mr Holder's announcement provoked a landslide of unexpected opposition. After first appearing supportive, Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City, began to oppose the idea, citing the enormous security costs it would generate. Others worried out loud that the trial would make New York a terror target all over again, while many on Capitol Hill decried all notion of a civilian trial, asserting instead that any person accused of plotting terror attacks against the US should be tried by military commissions only.
The fight over Mohammed's legal fate has also complicated Mr Obama's efforts to fulfil another flagship pledge to the international community – the closure of the Guantanamo prison facility. He has already missed a self-imposed deadline to do so and Congress had become intransigent about approving the funds to open a new prison on US soil to accommodate many of its inmates precisely because of the Mohammed trial row.
Among possible options for the White House would be to stand by the promise of a civilian trial for the men – which would involve prosecutors eschewing all incriminating testimony extracted in the course of water-boarding – while finding a less security-sensitive location.
Coming at Mr Obama from the other direction are members of his liberal base. "If President Obama reverses Holder's decision and retreats to using the Bush military commissions, he deals a death blow to his own Justice Department, breaks a clear campaign promise to restore the rule of law and demonstrates that the promises to his constituents are all up for grabs," Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Washington Post.
The other defendants who are theoretically to be tried alongside Mohammed in New York are Ramzi Binalshibh and Walid bin Attash, both from Yemen; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, also known as Ammar al-Baluchi, a Pakistani who is Mohammed's nephew; and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a Saudi. Military charges against the five were dropped in preparation for the filing of new charges for the putative civilian trial.Reuse content