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Western Pennsylvania could host 9/11 terror trial

| Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010

Politicians began lining up Friday against a potential trial of 9/11 terror suspects in Western Pennsylvania, where one of the hijacked airliners crashed.

"Although we are not dead set against it, we would have to hear two things," Gov. Ed Rendell said after New York's top police official said he thinks the trial won't take place there. "First, why it would be safer for Western Pennsylvania than for New York City; and second, what portion of the cost for security and other things would the federal government absorb?"

The Obama administration is drafting plans to move out of Manhattan the trials of professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged accomplices, two administration officials said.

"As Pennsylvania directly experienced part of the attack on September 11th, we are acutely interested in seeing the perpetrators brought to justice," said Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. "However, the last thing Pennsylvania needs is a terrorist trial that raises security concerns and places even more of a burden on our taxpayers."

The Sixth Amendment dictates that civilian trials for the suspects must be held in one of the areas where planes crashed Sept. 11, 2001, according to Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at Duquesne University. That leaves the Southern District of New York, the Eastern District of Virginia -- the location of the Pentagon -- or the Western District of Pennsylvania, which includes Somerset County, where United Flight 93 crashed.

"The presumption is the trial should take place in the district that the crime was committed," Antkowiak said.

Officials in this district's three federal courthouses in Downtown, Erie and Johnstown said they had no word of a move to Pennsylvania. Chief U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster said he couldn't comment on any matter that might come before the court. Federal agencies in Pittsburgh referred questions to the Justice Department.

Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said he couldn't confirm whether the trial would move, or where it would go.

"We are considering our options," he said.

Mary Beth Buchanan, the former U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, said holding the trial in this district would be expensive and drain resources.

"It's impossible to predict how long this trial might take," she said, noting the complicated charges. It would tie up U.S. marshals who protect courtrooms, she said.

"It would be outrageous to put the financial burden of these trials on the citizens of Western Pennsylvania," Buchanan said.

Sens. Bob Casey Jr. and Arlen Specter said they had no information the trial would move to Pennsylvania, but they oppose the idea and told the Obama administration.

"Mayor Bloomberg has given good reasons why the trial should not be held in New York City, and that same reasoning would apply for Pennsylvania as well," said Specter, D-Philadelphia.

Specter's opponent in the May primary, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, said he supports civil trials in U.S. courts for terror suspects, no matter the location. Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey opposes holding the trial anywhere but before a military tribunal.

"Holding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's trial in New York City was a terrible idea from the beginning, due to the many security concerns, but moving the trial elsewhere does not solve the problem," Toomey said.

The plan to hold the trial in New York started to unravel when police Commissioner Raymond Kelly detailed costs and logistical challenges of ensuring security at the Federal Courthouse in lower Manhattan, he said.

Criticism of the plan that Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year reached a crescendo this week when Mayor Michael Bloomberg reversed his earlier support.

New York Gov. David Paterson said he was "elated that our concerns are being considered by the president and the federal government."

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl would have similar concerns, his spokeswoman said.

"The same ones outlined by Mayor Mike Bloomberg -- that the trial could put our citizens in danger, as well as the exorbitant costs associated with the trial, something that we could not withstand," spokeswoman Joanna Doven said.

Hosting such a high-profile trial poses a slew of security challenges, from international terrorist organizations seeking to disrupt it to domestic hate groups, said Danny Defenbaugh, a security consultant and 33-year veteran of the FBI. The threats remain the same no matter where the trial takes place, he said.

"An example that is much less magnified is when we moved the Oklahoma City bombing trial from Oklahoma City to Denver," Defenbaugh said. "We still had the same types of hate groups (to guard against). It didn't matter to them whether we were in Oklahoma City or St. Louis, Mo."

Moving the trial would be a setback for President Obama. His administration spent weeks defending its handling of terror threats after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, which reignited the debate about whether terror suspects should face civilian or military justice.

Obama long has supported trying some terrorists in federal, civilian court, while Republicans argue terrorists should be tried in military tribunals where other Guantanamo Bay detainees will be judged.

White House spokesman Bill Burton said Obama believes Mohammed and his alleged accomplices could be successfully and securely brought to justice in a federal court.

Additional Information:

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

• Born in Pakistan in 1964 or -65, and raised in Kuwait

• Received degree in engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 1986

• Traveled to Afghanistan in late 1980s to join resistance movement against Soviet Union

• Uncle to Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in which Mohammed later claimed involvement

• Purportedly prepared the Bojinka plot, a scheme to plant bombs on U.S.-bound jetliners that was found on Yousef's computer and is considered the source of the 9/11 plan

• Captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in 2003

• Reportedly subjected to waterboarding 183 times in March 2003

• In March 2007, made a confession before a military tribunal of participation in about 30 operations

• Claimed responsibility for the failed shoe bombing plot involving Richard Reid to down two airliners

• Said he killed and decapitated American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 in Karachi, Pakistan

• Claimed he was responsible for a 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, that killed 202 people

• Confessed he was 'responsible for the 9/11 operation from A-Z'

• Said he played a part in assassination plots against President Clinton and Pope John Paul II

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