New York Times
October 11, 2001
Justice Dept. Takeover of Terror Prosecutions Frustrates U.S. Attorney
By BENJAMIN WEISER and WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM
The decision to shift authority over potential criminal prosecutions stemming from the Sept. 11 terror attacks from New York to Washington has upset and frustrated law enforcement officials who have investigated Osama bin Laden for nearly a decade.
The move to consolidate control in the Justice Department in Washington has also diminished the roles of Mary Jo White, the powerful United States attorney in Manhattan, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's New York office in the worldwide pursuit of those responsible for the hijackings and suicide attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Government officials have said that the move by Attorney General John Ashcroft is part of a broad rethinking by the Bush administration of how best to fight terrorism.
They say the changes are driven in part by the need to respond more quickly to terrorist actions, an approach that has come to involve a combination of law enforcement, intelligence-gathering and military and diplomatic efforts.
But others, in questioning Mr. Ashcroft's decision to end the longstanding autonomy of Ms. White's office, say he will reduce the role of the country's most experienced terrorism prosecutors and investigators, which could undercut the broader counterterrorism effort.
For example, 15 of the 22 "most wanted" terrorism suspects whose names were released yesterday by the Bush administration had already been indicted by Ms. White's office in recent years, cases over which she will probably retain jurisdiction.
The list starts with Mr. bin Laden, whom Ms. White's office first indicted in 1998. It also includes others who were charged in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a foiled plot to blow up a dozen American jumbo jets over the Pacific Ocean.
Ms. White went to Washington this week and made a forceful argument to Mr. Ashcroft that her office should keep control over any potential indictments that may stem from the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, which left thousands dead.
As one government official summarized Ms. White's argument, she felt "she still has the responsibility to preserve the rights of the victims, because federal laws were violated within the jurisdiction of the Southern District."
Under the new approach, Ms. White's office will still have a say in the prosecution of terrorism. But overall decision-making will remain in the hands of Mr. Ashcroft.
Ms. White has been prosecuting terrorism since 1993, when President Bill Clinton appointed her chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan. Her office, working with police and F.B.I. investigators on the elite Joint Terrorist Task Force, has won convictions of more than two dozen terrorists in five major trials.
These cases included the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, a foiled plot to bomb the United Nations, and the failed conspiracy to blow up American jets over the Pacific.
In 1996, Ms. White's office opened the first grand jury investigation of Mr. bin Laden, and obtained a conspiracy indictment against him in June 1998, two months before the embassy bombings in Africa that killed 224 people.
Along with the task force, her office also secured the cooperation of two former aides to Mr. bin Laden, who offered the first detailed look at his operations and finances, and whose testimony helped win convictions in the embassy bombings trial.
Even with the shift of authority away from New York, Justice Department officials in Washington continue to lean heavily on New York expertise. Several veteran prosecutors and investigators have been temporarily sent to the nation's capital to assist in the effort. They include David N. Kelley, a senior prosecutor who runs Ms. White's terrorism unit; and several F.B.I. agents working on the case.
Ms. White and F.B.I. officials in New York refused to comment yesterday on the new policy, and its practical impact remains unclear. Officials in Washington have not said where grand juries investigating the attacks will sit, or where indictments may eventually be brought.
It is also possible, for example, that Mr. bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives in the terror case will never have their day in American court, and will be killed in combat or never caught.
But it is inevitable that somewhere, people with some connection to the terrorism conspiracy will be taken into custody, and officials will confront the issue of how and where to prosecute them.
"There comes a time when a prosecutorial focus needs to be developed as information is gathered and facts are developed," said Lewis D. Schiliro, who ran the New York office of the F.B.I. from 1998 to 2000.
"Certainly, there are capable lawyers in Washington," Mr. Schiliro added. "It's just that the Southern District has a history of doing these kinds of cases worldwide."
Steven M. Cohen, a former federal prosecutor under Ms. White, said: "For eight years, they have developed an expertise in these prosecutions and the complex facts that surround these groups.
"If ever there was a case where you'd want to play to your strength, this is it."
Copyright © 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
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