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White House: No decision yet on moving 9/11 trial

Alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is among those suspects set to face a trial in a civilian criminal court.
Alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is among those suspects set to face a trial in a civilian criminal court.
  • NEW: Orange County, New York, leader: Don't move trial here
  • Officials: President, Justice Department considering moving 9/11 trial from New York City
  • New York mayor concerned about costs and disruption of holding the trial in city
  • New York police: Cost to the city would be more than $200 million per year

Washington (CNN) -- No decision has been made on whether to change the current plan to hold the September 11 terrorist attack trial in a civilian court in lower Manhattan, White House officials said Sunday.

Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other politicians expressed concern over the costs and disruption of holding the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four accomplices at a New York City courthouse.

David Axelrod, the senior adviser to President Obama, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday that Obama believes the trial should take place in a criminal court instead of before a military commission, as permitted for some terrorism suspects.

However, Axelrod and Gibbs acknowledged that Obama and the Justice Department were considering moving the trial from New York City.

"We've made no decisions on that yet," Axelrod said on the NBC program "Meet the Press." Gibbs, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," also said the location of the trial was under discussion, but he expressed certainty that Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks, "is going to meet justice and he's going to meet his maker."

Gibbs and Axelrod criticized Republican opposition to the plan to hold the trial in a criminal court, saying no one complained when the previous administration of Republican President George W. Bush put terrorism suspects such as "shoe bomber" Richard Reid on trial in U.S. criminal courts.

"Now we have a Democratic president and suddenly we hear these protests," Axelrod said. "What has changed between now and then that would cause people to reverse positions?"

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told the CNN program that the Bush administration was wrong to hold terrorism trials on U.S. soil. Instead, trials for dangerous terrorism suspects should be held by military commissions at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility where they currently are held, McConnell said.

Obama intends to shut down the Guantanamo facility by transferring the roughly 200 suspects to the United States to stand trial or face indefinite detention, or to third countries. McConnell said Sunday he would fight that plan by trying to withhold federal spending for it.

"'I think that will be done on a bipartisan basis," McConnell said of congressional opposition, adding that "whatever domestic support they had for this is totally collapsing."

White House officials say the decision about any possible alternate sites to try Mohammed and the others will come from the Justice Department.

New York police estimated that the cost to the city would be more than $200 million per year in what could be a multi-year trial and that more than 2,000 checkpoints would need to be installed around Lower Manhattan. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said additional protection would have to be deployed for the city, not just "the core area of Manhattan."

Bloomberg initially supported the move, saying "it is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered."

However, Bloomberg used different rhetoric last week when asked about a community agency's proposals to relocate the trial, saying he would prefer the trial be held elsewhere, perhaps at a military base where it would be easier and cheaper to provide security.

"It's going to cost an awful lot of money and disturb a lot of people," Bloomberg said.

On Thursday, several New York Democratic politicians urged the Obama administration to thoroughly re-examine locating the trial in downtown Manhattan.

Julie Menin, chairwoman of a city community advisory agency, proposed four alternative locations for the trial within the Southern District of New York: Governors Island, Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the Bureau of Prisons jail complex at FCI Otisville. The latter three are in Orange County, New York, less than an hour from New York City, county executive Edward Diana told CNN.

Diana thinks the trials should not be held anywhere in New York, and definitely not in Orange County, which lost 44 residents in the terror attacks, he said.

"I've contacted my legal department and I'll tell you I'll do whatever it takes to stop those trials from coming here, even if it means closing down our roads," Diana said. "I'll sue the federal government if need be."

Diana said he'd be worried about the safety of Orange County residents if the trial comes there. Diana, who shot down an offer from Newburgh to host the proceedings in their new courthouse, said the suspects should not be tried in civilian courts.

But Newburgh Mayor Nick Valentine said the boost in media presence and police funding during the trial would help his "very poor, very urban" city. Newburgh's new $22 million courthouse is safe and has "every security you could want," Valentine said.

An alternate proposal at the West Point location has not been fully reviewed. A West Point spokesman said no one has officially requested a review of demands for such a trial, which would require in-depth study of legal and security concerns.

U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Dean Boyd said the Justice Department "can safely prosecute this case in the Southern District of New York while minimizing disruptions to the community to the greatest extent possible, consistent with security needs."

New York Gov. David Paterson will meet with the U.S. Marshal Service on Monday to discuss possible 9/11 trial locations in the state, Paterson spokeswoman Marissa Shorenstein told CNN.

CNN's Susan Candiotti and Ross Levitt contributed to this report.