The Obama administration said Friday that a decision on where to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four others accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks would not be made "for weeks," after a flare-up in the debate about whether that trial should take place in civilian court or before a military commission.
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Friday that a decision on where to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four others accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks would not be made “for weeks,” after a flare-up in the debate about whether that trial should take place in civilian court or before a military commission.
The administration sought to dampen speculation that a decision on where to hold a trial might be imminent. That speculation was fanned by a report Friday that aides to President Obama might recommend that he pull the prosecution out of civilian court and send it back to a military commission, where the Bush administration had planned to hold it.
“No decision has been made,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Friday.
In a conference call with reporters, three retired military officers said Friday that holding a Sept. 11 trial in a military commission would be a mistake. All three supported Obama last year when he signed an order calling for the closing of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
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“I would be deeply saddened if this thing would be reversed,” said one officer, Maj. Gen. William Nash of the Army. “It would give aid to our enemies. It would lessen our relationship with allies who have been extremely happy with the reversal of course we have taken. This is not the time to be scared.”
In addition, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of more than 200 relatives of victims of the attacks, said the group was “deeply troubled” by reports that Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the attacks, and four accused of conspiring with him, might not receive a civilian trial.
“Civilian trials in federal courts have resulted in hundreds of successful terrorism prosecutions,” said Donna O’Connor, a spokeswoman for the group, “whereas military commissions are an illegitimate system that undermines the rule of law.”
The group and others spoke out after The Washington Post, citing anonymous officials, reported Friday that advisers to the president were close to recommending that Obama prosecute the Sept. 11 case in a military tribunal.
Officials at the White House, Justice Department and Pentagon said Friday that Obama had not made a decision and that no recommendation had been sent to him.
Nevertheless, the administration showed signs of sensitivity to criticism over the article. Earlier Friday, Gibbs canceled his daily briefing. One aide said he was not feeling well, while another said he had meetings on other issues. A third aide said that until a decision was reached, the administration would have nothing else to say about the matter.
Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First, which organized the conference call with the retired officers, cautioned that Friday’s article might have been put out by members of the administration who preferred military commissions, as a “trial balloon” or to create perceived momentum for that policy.
It has been apparent that elements within the administration have been reconsidering the military-commission option since late January, after New York City officials, citing the cost and disruption of security, dropped their support for Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to hold a civilian trial in Manhattan.
Other elected officials from the three possible civilian trial venues — southern New York, eastern Virginia and western Pennsylvania, the sites of the Sept. 11 attacks — quickly said they, too, opposed hosting such a trial.