* Not clear what alternatives to New York being considered
* NY Commissioner Kelly predicts trials unlikely in NY
(Adds New York police commissioner, Justice Department)
By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON, Jan 29 The Obama administration has
begun looking for places other than the heart of New York City
to prosecute the accused Sept. 11 attack plotters in the face
of fierce criticism tied to security and costs, U.S. officials
said on Friday.
Critics have said the government's plan to try
self-professed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four
alleged co-conspirators blocks from the World Trade Center
would require a large security cordon, hurt area businesses and
allow the defendants certain legal rights.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has begun considering
other venues for the trials, according to one administration
official. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said: "We're
considering our options."
Holder in November decided the trials would be held in New
York City, whose federal courthouse is connected to a fortified
detention center with a tunnel.
"Conversations have occurred with the administration to
discuss contingency options should the possibility of a trial
in lower Manhattan be foreclosed upon by Congress or locally,"
a second administration official said.
New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters
he believed the trials are "unlikely" to occur there.
It was not clear what other venues are under consideration.
New York officials have suggested a military base, the U.S.
Military Academy at West Point, New York, or nearby Governor's
Island, though some said that last option was not feasible.
A U.S. official has said that no terrorism trials had been
held outside of a federal courthouse and there were questions
whether a trial could be held on a military base.
The decision to reconsider the location comes as President
Barack Obama faces increased political pressure to refocus his
agenda. Obama has been trying to push through a health care
reform initiative and reduce the high unemployment rate.
Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
reversed his support for holding the trials in Manhattan.
"I can tell you I would prefer if it was done elsewhere, I
think some of the suggestions make sense, like a military base,
because it's far away from people and you can provide security
easily," Bloomberg said on Friday on his weekly radio show.
He said he called the Obama administration on Thursday to
express his concerns and acknowledged ultimately the city could
handle the trials. "I will be as supportive as, and the city
will be, as supportive as we can, period," Bloomberg said.
New York Governor David Paterson has also been hesitant
about the trials in Manhattan. "We are worried about the
effects of mass law enforcement on lower Manhattan, congestion,
traffic, resources that have to be spent," he told reporters.
Administration officials have pointed to past terrorism
trials that were held in U.S. courts with little difficulty,
including one this week of a Pakistani scientist charged with
firing a rifle at U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.
Those entering that courtroom have faced airport-style
security: removing shoes and belts, passing through a metal
detector and having purses and other personal items searched.
Bloomberg has estimated the cost of security for the Sept.
11 trials to be at least $200 million a year and has asked the
Obama administration to pick up the tab.
That could be tough for Obama because he has had enormous
trouble getting the U.S. Congress -- despite big Democratic
majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives -- to
approve funding for his bid to close the U.S. military prison
at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where terrorism suspects are held.
Republicans and even some of Obama's fellow Democrats have
ramped up pressure in recent weeks against the planned criminal
trials, urging that the alleged Sept. 11 plotters be tried in
military tribunals instead.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham plans to offer
legislation next week aimed at barring funding for the Sept. 11
trials in civilian court. They "should be tried by military
commission -- not civilian court where they will be given the
same legal rights as American citizens," he said.
In addition to security concerns, some lawmakers -- as well
as some relatives of the almost 3,000 people who were killed in
the Sept. 11 attacks -- have said the defendants could use the
criminal courts as soapboxes to propagate their anti-American
beliefs and turn the trials into a media circus.
But Holder testified to Congress last year that the judges
who will preside over the trials will be able to prevent such a
Nicholas Valentine, the mayor of the town of Newburgh, 60
miles (100 km) north of Manhattan, welcomed the idea of hosting
the Mohammed trial -- and the millions of federal dollars that
could come with it.
"We're so low on the radar screen. We do not have the type
of density, nor do we have the attraction that New York City
has," Valentine told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, Basil
Katz and Edith Honan in New York; Editing by Mohammad Zargham
and Paul Simao)