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Obama Administration: Undecided on Terror Trial Venue

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Michael Bowman

The Obama administration says no decision has been reached on where to hold trials for accused terrorists, including the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.  The issue resurfaced after the administration backed away from plans to hold civilian trials in New York City.

Last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made headlines when he announced Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other high-profile terror suspects would be tried in federal court just blocks from where the World Trade Center twin towers once stood.  In the months since, New York City authorities have expressed opposition to the idea, based on security concerns and the costs that would be incurred.

Now, the Obama administration says the matter is under review.  Senior White House advisor David Axelrod spoke on NBC's Meet the Press television program.

"We have made no decisions on that yet," he said.  "The president believes that we need to take into consideration what the local authorities are saying. But he also believes that we ought to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and all others who are involved in terrorist acts to justice, swift and sure."

The proposed New York venue has run into opposition from some members of President Obama's Democratic Party.  Indiana Senator Evan Bayh spoke on the Fox News Sunday television program.

"I do not think we should spend any more money than is absolutely necessary to try these guys [terror suspects]," he said.  "We ought to try them quickly.  We ought to impose harsh sentences, including the death penalty for people who have killed Americans.  Those are my criteria."

Other Democrats say that costs should not be the determining factor when deciding a trial location.

But it is not just the proposed venue that is generating debate.  Many Republicans say accused terrorists who have been classified as enemy combatants should face justice at military, rather than civilian trials.  Also appearing on Fox News Sunday, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan was critical of Attorney General Holder's handling of the matter.

"[Holder] is making the wrong decisions," he said.  "And he is going to give Khalid Sheikh Mohammed a propaganda tool that is going to help the terrorists and not help U.S. citizens."

Ryan and other Republicans have argued that civilian trials for accused terrorists would invite sensationalized media coverage and allow defendants to manipulate and exploit constitutional and procedural safeguards that are built into America's legal system. But Democrats accuse Republicans of a double standard, noting the former Bush administration also tried terror suspects in federal court.  Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen on Fox News Sunday:

"Under the Bush administration, we used federal courts and we used military commissions.  Under the Obama administration, we are using federal courts and military commissions," he responded.

The latest high-profile terror suspect is a Nigerian man accused of attempting to blow up a U.S.-bound jet with explosives hidden under his clothing on Christmas Day.  Republicans have been critical of the Obama administration's handling of the case after media reports surfaced that the suspect had been advised of his right to refuse to answer U.S. interrogators' questions less than an hour after the interrogation began.

"We need to find out from terrorists, like the Christmas Day bomber, what else he knows [about terror plots]," said Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander on Fox News Sunday.

The Obama administration maintains that advising the Nigerian suspect of his rights did not prevent interrogators from obtaining useful information.

"He has given very valuable information to the government about activities in Yemen and some of his experiences there," added White House Advisor David Axelrod. "And we have not lost anything as a result of how his case has been handled."

Last week saw the first appeal of a military commission conviction of a Guantanamo Bay detainee, top al-Qaida propagandist Ali al-Bahlul.  A three-judge panel heard oral arguments in Washington, but did not specify when a decision would be forthcoming.

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