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Graham to Obama: scrap New York terror trial, I'll stand with you

Senator Lindsey Graham on Sunday outlined his plan to help President Obama close Guantánamo if the administration agrees to abandon a civilian New York terror trial for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in favor of a military tribunal.

By Staff writer / March 7, 2010

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, right, accompanied by Senator John McCain, discusses the New York terror trial on February 2, 2010. Graham stepped to President Obama's defense on Sunday, when Obama announced he would reconsider holding the trial of suspected 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in a civilian court in New York.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP/File

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On Sunday, two moderate senators defended President Obama’s apparent willingness to reconsider his administration’s decision to use a civilian New York terror trial for the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

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The first, Senator Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, is seen as the architect behind the Obama administration’s potential change in plans. He has promised to help Obama close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility if Obama gives up his plans of trying Mohammed and other sensitive terror suspects in a civilian court.

“We need a legal system that gives due process to detainees while recognizing” that there are sensitivities to national security in such a case, said Senator Graham, a former military lawyer, on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

He wants the trials to be held as military tribunals.

The second, retiring Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana, backed Graham's plan. “Everybody has got to check their ideology at the door in order to get to practical solutions,” said Senator Bayh, also appearing on “Face the Nation.”

An about face?

At issue is the treatment of detainees held at Guantánamo Bay.

Civil libertarians have alleged that the Bush-era policy of detaining some terror suspects indefinitely without trial was a violation of American values. They held that closing Guantánamo and trying Mohammed and others in a civilian court would be the strongest demonstration possible of the strength of America’s rule of law.

The Obama administration appeared to validate this viewpoint when Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year his plans to put Mohammed on trial in a New York federal court.

But critics of the plan have gained traction in recent weeks. The sheer logistics of holding such a trial in a civilian court, in particular, have suggested that the plan might not be practically feasible.

The two senators suggested Sunday morning that Obama is merely searching for a compromise, dropping one goal – a civilian trial – in order to advance his more deeply held wish – closing Guantánamo.

Graham's promise

If this happens, Graham pledges to stand beside Obama in the president’s quest to shutter Guantánamo. “We will never win this war unless we understand the effect that Guantánamo Bay has had on our war effort,” said Graham Sunday, suggesting that the facility has become synonymous with torture – a key selling point of anti-American rhetoric in Islamic countries.

Charles Stimson, a former Pentagon detention official, told The Los Angeles Times that such a deal could work: "You are going to see national security hawks like me get out in front and support the administration and try to convince skeptics, members of the conservative caucus, that they need to get behind this."

Graham’s past as a military lawyer puts him in a unique position to persuade Obama that military tribunals would offer sufficient rights to defendants and not merely be a kangaroo court.

“We need to win the war within our values system, but realize that this is a war,” said Graham, who has held hearings with Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona to uncover and curtail the torture of detainees. “Detainee policy is hard, but we have to get it right.”

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