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NYT: Accused Qaeda Detainees May Be Tried in Brooklyn

December 13, 2009

Looks like the terror trial issue just got even close to home:

Justice Department officials in Washington are close to deciding whether to prosecute several accused Al Qaeda operatives currently being held in the military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in federal court in Brooklyn, according to people briefed on the matter.

A decision to try the cases in Brooklyn would mean that major terrorism trials would take place not only in Lower Manhattan, where the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks is to be prosecuted blocks from where hijackers destroyed the World Trade Center, but also in New York City’s other busy federal courthouse. Officials have said they are also likely to try detainees from Guantánamo in federal courts in Alexandria, Va., and Washington, D.C.

The names of the accused operatives whose cases may be brought in Brooklyn have not been disclosed. But several people said they would most likely include at least one so-called high-value detainee, a senior Qaeda operative who played a significant role in the organization before he was captured and eventually held in Guantánamo Bay.

The decision will be made by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in consultation with the secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates; officials were expected to announce the plans in the coming days. The Nov. 13 announcement that the Obama administration would prosecute the self-described 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and four other accused 9/11 plotters, in federal court in Manhattan ignited intense political debate, over the propriety of bringing such cases in civilian courts and over concerns about security.

It has also led to protests outside the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan, where Mr. Mohammed and his codefendants are to be tried.

It was not immediately clear whether terrorism trials would be conducted at the same time in the two courthouses, less than two miles apart, separated by the East River, if the decision is made to bring cases in Brooklyn.

But such a prospect seems unlikely. The trial of Mr. Mohammed and the four others in Manhattan will be one of the highest-profile terrorism cases in history, presenting enormous security and manpower challenges, while any major Qaeda cases to be brought in Brooklyn would also require very heavy security and attract enormous attention.

Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said the agency, along with the Department of Defense, was continuing to review the cases of Guantánamo Bay detainees referred for prosecution “to determine whether individual cases will be tried in federal court or reformed military commissions.”

“There have been no final forum or venue determinations made since the Nov. 13 announcement,” he said.

A spokesman for Benton J. Campbell, the United States attorney in Brooklyn, declined to comment.

The announcement last month by Mr. Holder to hold Mr. Mohammed’s trial in Lower Manhattan has already prompted protests outside the gray marble courthouse by families of 9/11 victims and some members of Congress. At the same time, Mr. Holder announced that five other detainees would be tried by military commissions.

Mr. Holder came to New York on Wednesday, visited that courthouse and met with senior law enforcement officials. Among them were the United States Attorney Preet Bharara, whose prosecutors will bring the case, and the head of the New York F.B.I. office, Joseph M. Demarest Jr., whose agents have done much of the investigation. He received a presentation from the United States Marshal in Manhattan, Joseph Guccione, whose deputies are responsible for providing security at the courthouse, and met with Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, whose officers will secure the area around it.

As part of the preparation for the trial of Mr. Mohammed and his codefendants, and whatever cases may be brought in Brooklyn, the F.B.I. is setting up a special unit within the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which itself is made up of F.B.I. agents, police detectives and investigators from dozens of other agencies, several officials said. This new task force, which will include a number of veteran agents with experience preparing complex cases for trial, will provide investigative support for the cases, the officials said.

The security challenges for any Brooklyn trials will be significant, though perhaps not as considerable as those for the trials in Lower Manhattan, where the courthouse sits near as many as a dozen government buildings just a few blocks from ground zero and the financial district, a neighborhood often crowded with tourists.

Police officials have compared the planned security deployment for the Manhattan trials to that for the city’s New Year’s Eve celebrations in Times Square, but one that will be sustained over many months, at a price tag Mr. Kelly has estimated at well over $75 million in overtime and other costs.

Mr. Holder has suggested that the cost should not be borne by the city alone.

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From The New York Times.

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