Keeping Khalid Sheik Mohammed Out of Civilian Courts

Earlier this week, I introduced bipartisan legislation, H.R. 4556, with Senator Lindsey Graham to prohibit the use of Department of Justice funds for a civilian trial for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his co-conspirators in the U.S.  However, it would still allow for a military commission at Guantanamo Bay or on a secure military base inside the U.S.  This is a reasonable approach that allows the administration to try these murderous terrorists in an appropriate military commission.

Although our approach should be common sense, last November Attorney General Eric Holder unilaterally announced that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his four co-conspirators would be tried in the heart of New York City in a civilian trial.  The attorney general did not consult with any local leaders, including New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly or Mayor Michael Bloomberg. If he had, he would have better understood the dangers and cost of this approach.

First, the security implications of holding such a trial in the heart of New York City, or any urban center, expose the areas to an unnecessary security threat.  These detainees would not be transferred to a “supermax” facility, as the administration has implied, but to a less secure, local jail for years during this trial.  This is the same local jail where Mahmud Salim, charged with participating in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, stabbed prison guard Louis Pepe in an escape attempt.  Despite efforts to secure the jail and the courthouse, the continued danger of holding a high-profile terrorist in New York City for an extended period seems ill conceived in light of recent terrorist plots against American citizens. 

Upon reviewing the costs and security concerns from the New York City Police Department last week, Mayor Bloomberg stated, “It would be great if the federal government could find a site that didn’t cost a billion dollars, which using downtown [New York City] will.  [The trial] is going to cost an awful lot of money and disturb an awful lot of people.”  Shortly thereafter, most local, state, and congressional leaders from the New York region withdrew their support and encouraged the attorney general to reverse this decision.

In light of this collapsing support from local leaders for the trial, I am concerned that the Obama Administration is now “venue shopping” for a new city to hold this trial.  According to press reports, the attorney general is now reviewing alternate sites in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, among other places.  This approach is no less dangerous, costly and disruptive to other communities under consideration than it was for New York City.

Late last fall, I offered an amendment to the fiscal year 2010 appropriations legislation that would have prohibited funding for this and other civilian trials in the U.S..  As ranking Republican on the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the Justice Department, I have fought administration efforts over the last year to transfer and even release Guantanamo Bay detainees into the U.S.  Unfortunately, my amendment was defeated on a party-line vote as members tried to wrap up their end-of-year votes before the Christmas break.  The vote attracted little attention from the national media, which was singularly focused on the outcome of the Senate health care bill. 

However, following the failed Christmas Day airliner attack and the administration’s mismanagement of the interrogation of alleged terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab, new questions were raised about the plans for the a New York City trial.  Around the same time, it became known that the security costs for the trial would well exceed $250 million per year and could reach an estimated price tag of $1 billion or more.  The election of Senator-elect Scott Brown in Massachusetts further prompted New York’s political leadership to reevaluate their support for this increasingly unpopular and unnecessary trial. 

The legislation Sen. Graham and I have introduced provides an opportunity for members of Congress to send a clear message to the attorney general that urban, civilian courthouses are not the appropriate venues for terrorism trials.  I will also offer this legislation as an amendment to appropriations legislation that comes before my committee this year to continue to let the attorney general know that this plan is too much of a threat to public safety and security.


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