WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
New York, NY –
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced he was bringing Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other 9/11 suspects from Guantanamo to lower Manhattan for a civilian trial, the locals were on board, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. David Paterson. But nobody checked with the neighborhood. And when the local Community Board passed a resolution recently opposing the plan, elected officials from City Hall to the White House found themselves scrambling to play catch-up.
Your perspective depends on which way you enter the lower Manhattan neighborhood that would host the terror trial -- if you're juggling groceries or toddlers or carrying a briefcase with legal motions. From the front, the iconic facades of the state and federal courts are imposing. And since 9/11, these sites are closely defended hardened targets.
Heavy retractable metal barricades that weigh tons are embedded in the midst of the sprawling court complex to prevent a potential suicide truck bombing. But, for the thousands of people who live in apartment buildings that are adjacent to state and federal courts, this is their neighborhood.
Facade of the U.S. Southern District Moynihan Court House on Pearl Street
"We feel that we know more than anyone else what it is like to go through difficult security issues," says Julie Menin, the chair of Community Board 1. "And so we felt, certainly knew, when Ray Kelly got up there and said there will be 2,000 security check points in Lower Manhattan it did not take imagination for us to understand what that really meant."
As the chair of Community Board 1, Menin was reacting to Commissioner Kelly's estimate that to make Lower Manhattan safe during the federal trial of the 9/11 suspects, it would cost $200 million a year. Community Board 1 was the first to question the collective wisdom of the U.S. Justice Department, the mayor, and the governor.
"The community boards are the most local form of government New York City has," Menin says. "We are certainly advisory in nature. We are 50 board members. We're all volunteers. Our power really emanates from land use, in terms of reviewing any type of variance. We do re-zoning, liquor licenses."
Menin says Community Board 1's opposition is not a case of "not in my backyard." She says there is more at stake than neighborhood sensibilities.
"And to have put the stock exchange and the financial capital of our country at risk once again," Menin says, "that would have affected everyone, not just in the city but across the country."
At at a Community Board 1 meeting last month, the Obama administration's plan to bring Khalid Sheik Mohammed to their neighborhood for trial was roundly denounced. Residents felt the already tight security they live under would become even more invasive all while putting them at risk. A resolution to move the trial to Governor's Island got unanimous support. Vincent Imbracino's apartment is right next door to the federal court house.
"It is the first time I am speaking on behalf of Chatham Towers," Imbracino says. "As Police Commissioner Kelly says, we are going to be in the hard zone. We are next door to 500 Pearl Street, where everyone is going to be having this trial. Two-hundred-and-forty families will be imprisoned. We will not have access to our cars. We can't get in and out of the building as we did in 9/11 -- 9/11, we heard it, we saw it, we smelled it, we lived it. We ask you, please pass this resolution."
Over the years, Imbracino said the footprint of the federal law enforcement complex expanded.
"The jail was going to be called Court House annex, so we all figured, well, it is going to be additional to the court. But then they made the jail. Then they made the crossover to get the prisoners for the convenience of the judges. Now they are really going to make it convenient for the government to have war criminals, war criminals in a civilian court."
For resident Nancy Linde, the very measures authorities planned to take to protect the public were cause for great anxiety.
"We're going to have snipers on the roofs to protect us from other sniper attacks?" she asked.
After the community board resolution passed, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and other council members lent their support to the consideration of alternative venues. Members of Congress and even Sen. Chuck Schumer followed. Mayor Bloomberg called Attorney General Holder but would not disclose what he said.
Last week, when asked by a reporter how to gauge the local impact of hosting the trials in Lower Manhattan, the mayor was stoic.
"I don't think it would have been excruciating," the mayor said. "I think it would be inconvenient. There is no question about that."
Now, publicly at least, the mayor is remaining neutral about the final outcome.
"It may very well be that there are other places that a trial could be held, a civil trial, if that is what the federal government wants to do, other places that would be a lot less expensive and less inconvenient for people, and hopefully they will look at that," Bloomberg said.
The White House and Department of Justice will only say they are reviewing their options. Since the announcement was made last year, the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing has shaken national confidence and caused embarrassment for the Obama security team. For Paterson, the issues of cost and inconvenience are only part of the local trial equation. He says there's good reason for lower Manhattan residents to distrust officials.
"The idea that because of the trial any loud noise or any kind of disruption would frighten many people who are there, people who have been frightened for the last eight years, people who were told they could live and work by the Environmental Protection Agency in that area in 2001 and found out later on that they were actually not safe."
Community Board 1 chair Julie Menin says she's proud of what her local board accomplished. She says she voted enthusiastically for Obama for president. Now she hopes he remembers his roots as community organizer.
"He started his career as a community activist and so I think you can't forget the impact to communities and absolutely a feasibility study should have been done," she says.
In its latest budget proposal, the Obama administration set aside $200 million for local police costs related to the 9/11 terror trials. No location was specified.