WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, after weeks of controversy over its proposal to hold a civilian terror trial in New York, gave ground Friday and revived the possibility of using a military tribunal to try professed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Both Attorney General Eric Holder and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs did not rule out a military trial when asked about the Obama administration's options.
Trying Mohammed in military court would mark a further political retreat from Holder's announcement last year that the five Sept. 11 suspects now held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would be tried in federal court in New York.
The Obama administration is trying to head off a possible vote in the Senate that could stop any terror suspects currently held at Guantanamo from being brought to the United States to face a civilian trial. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is offering such legislation, after losing a vote last year on the issue.
At stake is the public's perception of the administration's handling of national security, already shaken last year by strong congressional opposition to transferring any Guantanamo detainees to American soil.
A Capitol Hill defeat over the trial issue could embolden the GOP minority to raise national security concerns in the midterm elections this year.
White House officials said Friday that Obama and his top advisers will play a direct role in ultimately deciding how to prosecute Mohammed. The administration initially decided to try the five terror defendants in New York but has since appeared to backtrack.
As a result of Holder's decision to seek a civilian prosecution, Bush-era military charges that had been pending against the five suspects were dismissed last month. Those military charges could now be revived.
"Obviously there are efforts on Capitol Hill through legislation to restrict either the type of or the venue of a trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators. That, by definition, involves the White House and ultimately the president," Gibbs said.