WASHINGTON - Looking to breathe life into President Barack Obama's stalled pledge to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, White House advisers are inching toward recommending military trials for self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four accused henchmen.
Attorney General Eric Holder's original plan to try them in a civilian court in New York City met with criticism so fierce it threatened to derail Obama's promise to shut the U.S. military's Cuban prison.
The drumbeat of policy criticism, combined with the increasingly loud outcry from New York City, made it nearly impossible for the White House to hold on to Holder's decision without review.
That review is not finished, so no new recommendation is yet before the president. A decision is not expected for weeks, said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss private deliberations. But the recommendation almost certainly will be for a switch to a military process for the five accused men, administration officials said.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who opposed trials in New York, said Friday if the White House opts for a military tribunal, it won't be in the state.
Neither New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg nor Police Commissioner Ray Kelly would comment Friday.
As difficult as the politics are concerning how and where to try the most notorious terror suspect in U.S. custody, that's only one step toward the even more complicated goal of closing Guantánamo, where Mohammed and nearly 200 other terror detainees remain.
That was a signature promise of Obama's presidency, and it remains unkept well past his original deadline of January. Failing to keep it would have huge implications for the president, both with his base of supporters in the Democratic Party and in his efforts to remake America's image around the globe.
The reason for the probable reversal is simple: The more the trial controversy spun out of control, the harder it was becoming to make progress on other, already difficult issues crucial to closing Guantánamo, such as securing funding from Congress for the closure, arranging a replacement facility in the United States and planning other trials.
Privately, White House aides blame New York officials' reversal and the heightened security fears that followed the Christmas bombing plot. The administration believes a civilian trial is doable, even preferable, as a demonstration of U.S. commitment to rule of law. But with the White House also wanting to move forward, its officials now see the Mohammed trial decision as the key to the logjams.