Trial And Error

The trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the accused 9/11 conspirators has been a point of political dispute ever since Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Nov. 13 that they would be tried in a federal criminal court in lower Manhattan. Predictable battle lines were drawn: national security conservatives said this was a terrible idea, the administration's supporters said it wasn't, pointing to shoe bomber Richard Reid's trial.

But now the administration has backed off its plan for the New York trial, having found opposition not just from New York's mayor, but from some prominent Democrats in its congressional delegation, and Andrew Cohen says the trial plans were essentially botched from the beginning.

Without support from Bloomberg, and without indicting Mohammed, the administration rolled out its plans without the proper prep work, Cohen writes at his Atlantic Correspondents blog. Meanwhile, the criticism has festered and the political baggage has continued to weigh.

When Holder announced the decision, Marc noted that it wasn't a political one: if it had been politically motivated, the calculus surely would have been different--they would have gone with a different plan.

But aside from the tough sell of the plan generally, Cohen suggests the administration stands to lose a battle it didn't have to, because of bad political, PR, and legal tactics:

Even if you assume that reasonable people may disagree over the efficacy of a federal trial for Mohammed, there is no excuse for the manner in which the Obama administration sought to achieve that goal. To announce a trial in Manhattan without having an iron-clad assurance of support from the mayor? To announce without a quick indictment to follow? To announce and then sit back and let the misinformation and disinformation fly for months without retort? Please. If these guys are going to lose on the merits of their plans, fine. But losing because of bad tactics just isn't good enough. Especially with so much on the line.

Cohen makes a strong point, but it's worth pointing out that Democratic lawmakers and pundits did defend the administration's decision, even if the White House didn't launch a full-scale message attack on its critics--although the political fault lines were largely stagnant, and the debate wasn't really moving anywhere.

The administration's revised plans have not included military trials for Mohammed and the other alleged conspirators--just a search for a different location. That has given half a victory to critics of a civilian trial for KSM in New York City. The civilian trial is the larger part--the part over which Democrats have gone to bat for the White House--and it remains to be seen whether the administration would be willing to back away from that. But those fault lines did appear to move a bit last week, as two Democratic senators, Jim Webb (VA) and Blanche Lincoln (AR), signed onto a bill to deprive funding for a civilian trial of KSM.