Security review begins in D.C. to prepare for terrorism trial

By Matt Apuzzo and Devlin Barrett
Associated Press / January 16, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is conducting an intense security review as part of a plan to bring one of the world’s most notorious terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay to Washington for a trial steps from the Capitol, officials said.

Republican critics said the plan would make the city more dangerous, risk compromising US intelligence methods, and provide a powerful and expensive bullhorn for Osama bin Laden’s alleged lieutenant Riduan Isamuddin and two associates. Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, is believed to be the main link between Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, the terrorist group blamed for the 2002 bombing at a Bali nightclub that killed 202 people.

“Such a plan is unacceptable and I will vehemently oppose it,’’ Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, wrote yesterday in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. Wolf cited what he said were classified briefings he received about terror threats to the United States. “If the American people knew these threats, they would never tolerate the transfer of these detainees to major urban population centers for trial,’’ he wrote.

The plan under review at the Justice Department was described by multiple US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private planning meetings. The officials said a decision could come in weeks.

Other trials may also occur in Washington and New York, meaning the most significant terrorism trials in generations would be conducted in the two cities targeted in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In his criticisms yesterday to the attorney general, Wolf said trials should be at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, or alternatively, at what he described as remote, secure facilities far from any US population centers.

After his capture in 2003, Hambali was among the terrorism suspects held for years in secret CIA prisons. US intelligence officials have publicly linked him to the attempted assassination of a Philippine ambassador and the coordinated Christmas Eve 2000 bombings of Indonesian churches. In 2007, Hambali, 43, appeared before a preliminary military tribunal and denied any connection with Al Qaeda.

The Justice Department said a final decision has not been made on Hambali’s case, but after news of the plan surfaced, Republicans picked up where they left off criticizing November’s decision to try suspected Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York.

“There is still no national security interest that is served by closing Guantanamo Bay,’’ Representative Pete Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan, said in a statement yesterday. “And there is only the prospect of new targets created by holding terrorist detainees and show trials on American soil.’’

New York Republican Representative Peter King called the plan “abject surrender to political correctness,’’ and Missouri Republican Senator Kit Bond said it provided Hambali “an international stage to spew his hate-filled extremism.’’

Conducting a trial in the nation’s capital would be a symbolic repudiation of the policies of President George W. Bush, who portrayed Hambali as a success story in the Bush administration’s CIA interrogation program.

Bush said such interrogations helped crack alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and led authorities to Hambali. Under questioning at a CIA “black site,’’ Hambali revealed a plan for another wave of suicide hijackings in the US, Bush said.

The Obama administration has already decided that Mohammed will face trial in New York; the president has said he believes criminal courts can handle even the most dangerous terrorists.

But as Obama tries to close the military-run detention center at Guantanamo, he has found that moving detainees into US courts is more difficult than he spelled out during his presidential campaign. Hambali was among 14 of what the United States said were key Al Qaeda operatives moved from CIA custody to Guantanamo in 2006.