Civil liberties groups are reacting angrily to reports that President Obama could reverse his administration’s stance and try the alleged Sept. 11 conspirators in a military tribunal — a move that would leave many of his staunchest allies out on a limb.
Top supporters like Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Richard Durbin of Illinois — both of whom have vehemently defended Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.s decision to try suspected al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in federal court — said they would wait for an official announcement from the White House before weighing in. But advocacy groups are fuming over a report in the Washington Post that advisers to Mr. Obama want him to do an about-face and prosecute Mohammed in a military commission.
America’s enemies “certainly should be delighted with what appears to be great confusion, great ambiguity and inability to address the issue, so they should feel they are making progress if in fact our initial stand is reversed,” retired Lt. Gen. Harry E. Soyster said on a conference call organized by Human Rights First, which urged Mr. Obama to stand firm.
Mr. Holder’s decision last fall to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court infuriated many Republicans and even some moderate Democrats who argued that terrorists should be tried in a military tribunal. The administration has also faced the practical hurdle of where to host the trial, with administration officials abandoning plans for a trial in New York City because of security and financial concerns.
The White House has yet to comment on the report and canceled a press briefing scheduled for Friday afternoon.
“I think this is internal politics being fought out in public. This isn’t a done deal, said a former Democratic operative now involved in security policy. This is one of those classic Washington tempest stories which may or may not end up being decisive.”
Asked Friday about the possibility of a reversal on where to try the al Qaeda leader, the offices of both Mr. Leahy and Mr. Durbin said they don’t comment on speculation.
Mr. Obama has faced a tough balancing act in trying to show he’s tough on security — particularly in the wake of the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt on a U.S. airliner bound for Detroit — while making good on promises to his political base that his policies on civil liberties would be a marked change from those of former President George W. Bush.
He took heat from Republicans over Mr. Holder’s decision to hold a trial in New York, but justified the use of civilian courts for captives in the war on terror by noting that Mr. Bush’s administration used them to obtain a string of successful convictions. Still, critics like former Vice President Richard Cheney have used the controversy to savage the White House for treating suspected terrorists like common criminals. They have also worried that lawyers for Mohammed could use a public trial to spotlight controversial interrogation strategies such as waterboarding that were used on the self-proclaimed terrorist mastermind.
The American Civil Liberties Union, a fierce advocate of civilian trials, blasted the Obama administration for wavering under political pressure.
“If this stunning reversal comes to pass, President Obama will deal a death blow to his own Justice Department, not to mention American values,” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU executive director. “If the president flip-flops and retreats to the Bush military commissions, he will betray his campaign promise to restore the rule of law, demonstrate that his principles are up for grabs and lose all credibility with Americans who care about justice and the rule of law.”
But supporters of trying terrorist suspects in federal courts also reacted harshly to reports that Mr. Obama would reverse himself on a military tribunal for Mohammed in exchange for lawmaker assistance on shutting down the detainee prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which the administration has been trying to do since Mr. Obama took office.
“Closing Guantanamo and moving the military commissions to the United States doesn’t really close the concept of Guantanamo,” retired Maj. Gen. William L. Nash said on the Human Rights First call, stressing that it would be “leaving the job undone.”
Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who has been negotiation with the White House on these issues, said Friday on Fox News that a military trial for Mohammed would be “welcome news to most Americans.”
“It would be good leadership on the part of the president,” Mr. Graham said. “It would give us a chance to close Guantanamo Bay safely.”