White House Options on 9/11 Trial Dwindling by the Day

As the Obama administration struggles with the politically explosive question of where to hold the 9/11 terror trial, its options appear to be dwindling by the day.

Just days after administration officials acknowledged they were exploring alternatives to Attorney General Eric Holder's controversial decision to hold the trial in New York City, just a few blocks from Ground Zero, Sen. Charles Schumer (Democrat of N.Y.) threw a new roadblock in front of its most promising options.

Three possible sites in upstate New York suggested by administration officials late last week—West Point, Stewart Air Force Base, and a federal courthouse in Newburgh, N.Y.—were all unacceptable, he told reporters on Monday.

"I don't think any of these could be suitable sites for the trial and the residents in the regions up there agree completely," Schumer said. Another option—moving the trial to the Eastern District of Virginia, where the attack on the Pentagon took place—is facing just as much resistance. Virginia's new Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, said he would "strongly oppose" any effort to try Guantánamo detainees in the state. 

Even more troubling for the administration, one of Virginia's Democratic senators, Jim Webb, is already a strong backer of Sen. Lindsey Graham's amendment—being reintroduced at a press conference this morning—to cut off any federal funding for civilian trials of Guantánamo detainees.

Yet another obstacle that could prove the ultimate game-breaker: the pricetag. The Obama administration's new budget calls for $200 million in the Department of Homeland Security to reimburse whatever local community gets selected and another $73 million in the Justice Department budget "for the transfer and prosecution of detainees" remaining at Guantánamo.

But Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh—who voted against Graham's amendment last November when it was defeated 54 to 45—now appears to be switching positions, telling Fox News "it's hard to justify spending more money" to try the terror suspects in the United States.

All this appears to have left administration officials flummoxed. The acting deputy attorney general, Gary Grindler, told reporters Monday that, contrary to last week's news reports, holding the trial in New York City is not "off the table."

But one senior administration official involved in detainee issues says the White House remains divided over the issue. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel views the terror trials as a "distraction" from the administration's domestic agenda, especially health care, while others—including Holder and Vice President Joe Biden—argue that civilian trials are key to the president's commitment to the "rule of law," said the official, who asked not to be identified talking about internal deliberations.

"I don't think [the administration] knows what to do," said one Senate staffer, familiar with ongoing discussions between the Senate and the Obama administration about a way around the impasse.

Here's Schumer saying the three proposed sites are unacceptable:


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