NEW YORK – A letter and a speech may have doomed plans to bring the Sept. 11 terror trial to New York.
The letter written by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Washington earlier this month set a whopping $200-million-a-year price tag to secure the city during the trial — more than double the original estimate. The speech by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly detailed a planned lockdown of lower Manhattan certain to set new standards for gridlock.
The resulting political and public outcry has forced the Obama administration to consider looking for a friendlier home for the high-profile trial, even as the legitimacy of the New York Police Department's security plan and its estimated cost goes unchallenged.
Kelly insists the plan is necessary — a reality that started to sink in after his remarks before business leaders.
"The investment that the department would have to make ... and the details of the plan itself, how it would've impacted the traffic in lower Manhattan," he told reporters Friday. "That was the first time they heard it in one fell swoop, so to speak, and it raised their concerns."
By announcing late last year that New York would host the trial of admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged al-Qaida cohorts, the Obama administration stumbled into a political fire that had burned the previous administration.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, New York and federal officials have quarreled over how much of the city's security costs should be borne by Washington. New York officials, led by Bloomberg, have complained for years that the government does not pay enough of those costs. The Bush administration long argued they have to spread resources to protect the entire country.
The latest round of that long-running fight began when the Bloomberg administration circulated a Jan. 5 letter to reporters from the mayor to the Office of Management and Budget in Washington.
The letter put the cost of stepped-up security at $216 million for the first year after Mohammed and the others arrive in Manhattan from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After that, the mayor said it would cost $200 million annually for as long as the men are detained in the city — mainly overtime for extra NYPD patrols.
The police department had given an initial estimate of $75 million a year but later warned it could be higher. Officials said a second, more careful analysis produced the totals cited by the mayor, who warned the trial would strain the resources of the nation's largest police department.
"As 9/11 was an attack on the entire nation, we need the federal government to shoulder the significant costs we will incur and ease this burden," Bloomberg wrote.
The mayor left Kelly to explain the threat — and the extensive plans to thwart it.
"Given the unprecedented media attention the trial will attract, one concern is that terrorists may attempt to strike again in an effort to garner the publicity," he said in the Jan. 13 speech to a police organization.
On Friday, Kelly told reporters that public backlash made it "unlikely" the case would go forward in New York City. Two Obama administration officials said the Justice Department is drawing up plans for alternate locations for the terror trials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deliberations.
Pennsylvania officials expressed early concerns about the possibility of moving the trial to their state, where one of the hijacked airliners crashed. Gov. Ed Rendell told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that officials are not "dead-set" against the idea but worry about safety and want to know how much of the cost the federal government would pick up.
Holding the trial in New York City created concerns, on both sides, about protests. The NYPD planned a show of force involving thousands of officers on foot, in mobile guard towers and in patrol cars. An outer perimeter would be created with checkpoints for inspecting private cars, along with an inner frozen zone around the courthouse that would ban them altogether.
The courthouse area would be protected by car checkpoints, bomb-sniffing dogs, rooftop sharpshooters and helicopter patrols. Workers would endure long lines to enter.
Harbor patrols would monitor the East and Hudson rivers to prevent a Mumbai-style attack. The department also envisioned constant radiation sweeps to detect dirty bombs.
Experts say the threat assessment and cost projections were not overkill.
The plan is warranted "because downtown Manhattan had been the focus of terrorist attacks on at least two prior occasions, one of them Sept. 11, leading to the greatest loss of life on American soil," said Randy Mastro, former deputy mayor for Rudy Giuliani. "We sometimes have short memories. After Sept. 11, downtown was, understandably, locked down for many, many weeks."
The price tag "is obviously large," said Rick Nelson, a security expert with the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "But this is not something you cut corners on. ... A failure would be devastating."
By backpedaling, the administration could set a precedent that might make it more difficult to follow through with other planned terror trials in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia, said Patrick Rowan, once the top counterterrorism official in the Bush Justice Department.
"If it's too risky to hold a major terrorism trial in downtown Manhattan, then they're going to face the same argument from civic leaders in other metropolitan areas," Rowan said.
"If you follow the logic behind this decision, they may quickly find themselves in a position where they need to create a single facility," he added, "perhaps on a military base in the middle of a cornfield."