The Obama administration is developing plans to ship more than two dozen accused terrorists from Guantanamo to the United States so they can be placed on trial in four federal courts, according to two knowledgeable government officials, who asked not be be identified talking about the sensitive matter.
A Justice Department spokesman official emphasized there have been no final decisions about the fate of the detainees. The sources tell Newsweek there are still spirited internal debates within an administration task force, chaired by Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., about how many of them should be tried before military commissions -- as the Bush administration attempted to do—rather than civilian courts. But as a strong sign of the direction the process is moving, U.S. court security officials were told this week to start planning for the arrival of about 25 Guantanamo detainees for federal trials in four jurisdictions: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the District of Columbia and northern Virginia. A public announcement of the decision is expected to come by Nov. 16—the task force’s self imposed deadline—but could come earlier. When it does, it is sure to ignite a loud public debate: in just the past few days, conservatives—including former Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey—have stepped up their warnings that such trials could compromise national security, expose sensitive intelligence methods in open court, and cause logistical nightmares.
The biggest internal question is where the most important trial of all will take place—namely, the 9/11 conspiracy case in which Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin Al Shibh and three others are charged with orchestrating the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Justice Department officials – who strongly back the idea of trying the accused terrorists in federal court—have looked at the idea of holding the trial at a new secure courthouse in Newport News, Va. (which is in the same district that has jurisdiction over one of the 9/11 targets, the Pentagon.)
But, typical of the debates and internal rivalries that have taken place within the task force, a strong argument is being made by prosecutors in New York that the trial should be held at the U.S. courthouse in Foley Square in lower Manhattan, walking distance from the site of the deadliest crime in American history.
Wherever the final venues, the trials will unquestionably present major security challenges: Officials warn that they will require massive increases in resources for the U.S. Marshals to both incarcerate and transport the accused Qaeda terrorists to and from the trials, and to provide around the clock protection for judges, jurors and prosecutors. “It’s a big challenge,” said one official. “At this point, [the Marshals] don’t have the extra bodies to do the security at these trials.”
Still, Holder and his aides feel strongly that public trials of the Qaeda plotters are the best way to vindicate the American system of justice -- and provide catharsis for the mass murder of civilians. They are not worried about the “nightmare scenario” conjured by some critics: that a jury might actually acquit one of the defendants and allow a Qaeda terrorist to walk free. “We don’t think there are a lot of jurors who are going to be sympathetic to someone who shouts, ‘death to America,’” said one administration official. (At his arraignment before a military commission judge last year. Mohammed, or KSM as he is more commonly known, declared that he considered “all the U.S. Constitution and laws evil” while bin Al Shibh expressed regret that he couldn’t get a U.S. visa depriving him of the chance to become a 9/11 “martyr.”)
A Justice spokesman, Matthew Miller, said: "No decisions have been made, but Department prosecutors are working diligently with military commission prosecutors, and we will announce a first round of decisions by November 16. After years of uncertainty, this administration is committed to bringing terrorists to justice."