Rep. King to attempt to push 9/11 trials controversy into intel authorization bill

When the House returns in late February, Republicans plan to force Democrats to declare their support or opposition to President Barack Obama’s decision to prosecute some suspected terrorists in federal court.

Rep. Pete King (N.Y.), the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said he would attempt to add language barring any money from being spent on trying alleged terrorists in civilian courts to the intelligence authorization bill. The House was set to consider the intelligence authorization measure on the floor this week but it was rescheduled for late February because of the blizzard.

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In the next week, King said, he will be fine-tuning the language to make it germane to the intelligence authorization bill. If he is unsuccessful or it doesn’t pass, he vowed to continue to offer the bill throughout the rest of the year whenever he sees an opportunity.

“There are several options and I intend to use all of them,” he said in an interview with The Hill.

King’s pledge comes the same day two influential Democratic senators tried to push back against the opposition to prosecuting terrorism suspects in federal court.

Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), who chair the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, respectively, sent a letter to Obama on Thursday endorsing the administration’s plans to try terrorists in federal court. They argue that the federal courts have a proven track record in prosecuting terrorism suspects and should not be shunted aside in favor of military commissions in all terrorism-related cases.

“We are writing today to endorse the use of our federal criminal courts to prosecute and bring terrorists to justice,” Leahy and Feinstein wrote. “Our system of justice is strong enough to prosecute the people who have attacked us.”

The pair also expressed support for the administration’s decision to try some terrorists in federal courts and others in military tribunals, what they called “flexibility.”

The administration plans to try the alleged Sept. 11 planners and Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in federal court and the USS Cole defendants in a reformed military commission. Maj. Nidal Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter, is being prosecuted in a court-martial.

“Congress should not tie the hands of our national security and law enforcement agencies, but should instead ensure they have the flexibility to use every means available,” they wrote. 

The letter comes nearly two weeks after another sent by Feinstein, urging Obama to consider moving the trial of self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed from New York City.

“In my view, trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City presents an avoidable danger, very large costs, and undue burdens on the city,” she wrote to Obama Jan. 29.

Her spokesman did not respond to a question about whether she remained opposed to trying Mohammed in New York.

In the wake of the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253, Republicans and a growing number of Democrats on Capitol Hill have openly opposed the Obama administration’s plans to try Mohammed in Manhattan.


King and Rep. Frank Wolf (Va.), the top Republican on the subcommittee that funds the Justice Department, are leading the House drive to prevent any funds from being spent on prosecuting Guantanamo Bay detainees in U.S. federal courts. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is leading a similar legislative initiative in the Senate. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who is in a tight reelection race, signed on as a co-sponsor to Graham's bill.

King said the Thursday letter from Feinstein and Leahy appears to be an attempt to shore up eroding support for Obama’s detainee policy both within Congress and among the general public.

“This is almost an Obama administration apology tour,” King said. “There is nothing in the letter that shows why the federal courts would be a better place to try them other than this indefinable belief that somehow the world will think better of us.”

Last week, two House Democrats, Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.) and Mike McMahon (N.Y.), jumped onto King and Wolf’s bill as co-sponsors, a sign that support in the Democratic Caucus for Obama’s detainee policies has deteriorated in recent weeks amid growing concern about how voters will view the White House's national security policies at the polls in November.

Altmire and McMahon joined Brooklyn’s Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D) in opposing the administration’s decision to hold Mohammed’s trial in Manhattan. Late last year, Velázquez wrote Attorney General Eric Holder to say the trial would harm businesses, and New York’s Democratic senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, have said they are receptive to alternative sites.

King, who represents parts of nearby Nassau and Suffolk counties, says Americans are confused about the administration’s detainee policies and that Obama has a responsibility to spell out a logical rationale for its decision to try some terrorism suspects in federal courts and others in military commissions.

He usually would support the notion that Congress needs to allow the president to exercise some flexibility in its decisions, he said, but when it comes to terrorism, Obama has squandered that privilege.

“I would normally say that there should be some flexibility left to the executive,” he said, “but this administration with its decision to try [Mohammed] in New York … has shown they cannot be trusted with that flexibility because they have shown a lack of good judgment.”