Democratic lawmakers from New York and elsewhere are voicing new and louder opposition to the Obama administration's plan for civilian trials in Manhattan of self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other accused terrorists.
Rep. Michael McMahon (D-N.Y.) said Thursday that he’s cosponsoring a House bill with House Homeland Security ranking member Peter King (R-N.Y.) to stop the Justice Department from funding security for the trial, which is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
"This bill presents the right approach for how America should handle the remaining prisoners at Gitmo. I strongly believe that everyone there who still needs to be brought to justice should be tried through the military tribunal system," said McMahon.
While the Obama administration has pushed for civilian trials for detainees in the war on terror, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) said Thursday that the Christmas Day attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airplane should change the White House’s approach to handling terror trials and detainees.
"In my view, from an intelligence perspective, the situation has changed with the Christmas attack… and the administration should take note of that and make a change as well," Feinstein told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell. "There are other places to try it in the U.S. which are more remote, much less a target and which are much less, I think, a spawning ground for very unfortunate propaganda all over the world."
But much of the Democratic criticism of the bill has come from New Yorkers, who have aimed most of their fire at the venue, not the decision to hold a civilian trial rather than a military tribunal.
The floodgates seemed to open after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who had supported holding the trial in the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, reversed his position on Wednesday.
“It would be great if the federal government could find a site that didn't cost a billion dollars, which using downtown will," Bloomberg told reporters.
Bloomberg has previously estimated that providing security for the trials, in a federal courthouse less than a mile from Ground Zero, could cost up to $250 million per year. If the trials drag on, it is not unforeseeable the security price tag could hit $1 billion, a figure that doesn’t count the impact on businesses and real estate development in lower Manhattan.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) signaled Thursday afternoon that she was also open to a change in venue. "I share the concerns from the mayor and the businesses community, and I am open to alternative locations," she said in a statement. Her political mentor and the state’s senior senator Chuck Schumer (D) also indicated he was open to moving the trial out of New York, the Daily News reported on Thursday.
The trial would create a “fortress-like perimeter” that “will deter many visitors from shopping in the area,” said Democratic Rep. Nydia Velázquez, whose district includes parts of lower Manhattan, in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking that the trial be moved.
"I believe the choice for a trial location has been made in an extremely shortsighted manner and I would respectfully request that you explore the possibilities of moving the trial to an alternate site," she wrote.
“New Yorkers aren’t stupid,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who advised Bill Clinton in 1996, and worked for Mayor Bloomberg’s 2009 reelection bid.
“Wall Street is being attacked by Obama, which means New York jobs are being attacked,” he said. “And putting the terrorist trial in NYC when it could be held any other place in the country is another form of attack. They could have put it in Montana.”
Despite the backlash from New York Democrats, Deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton gave no indication that the administration is considering moving the trial, answering a question Thursday about Mayor Bloomberg’s request by reminding reports that “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a murderous thug who has admitted to some of the most heinous crimes ever committed against our country.”
“The president … agrees with the attorney general’s opinion in November that he and others can be litigated successfully and securely in the United States of America,” added Burton, who didn’t say if the president had spoken with the mayor about the issue.
The civilian trials in Manhattan, announced by the administration last November, are shaping up to be a potent political issue in this year’s midterm elections. Republican Sen.-elect Scott Brown (Mass.) made the issue a key plank in his surprise win in a special election this month.
"I believe that our Constitution and laws exist to protect this nation. They do not grant rights and privileges to enemies in wartime. ... In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them," Brown said in his victory speech last week.
Brown's pollsters said the issue polled better for him than even his opposition to health reform.