Persistent uncertainty over prosecuting accused terrorists is putting the White House at sharp odds with public opinion and handing Republicans a potent election-year issue.
President Obama in November announced plans to try accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others in New York City federal courts. But public anger and resistance from Congress threw those plans into flux.
While White House officials ponder how best to proceed, Republicans are seizing the opening to raise a warning about Obama's national security credentials.
“A civilian trial of hard-core terrorists is unnecessarily dangerous and creates more problems than it solves,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “Military tribunals are the best way to render justice.”
Outstanding issues for the administration include how and where to try the detainees, what to do with them after trial — and who is making the decisions.
Vice President Biden told NBC News on Sunday that Obama would make the final decision on how to proceed. Last week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama was part of a larger, decision-making process inside the White House.
The original idea for civilian trials came from Attorney General Eric Holder, who is likely to be overruled by Congress if he presses Obama to proceed. After saying Obama supported Holder's plan, the White House more recently has been backing away from the idea.
“There has been significant response coming from [New York City] and the congressional delegation requiring the president to have to take a look at this again. That decision as to where [Mohammed is] going to be tried and exactly when is something that's being considered right now,” Biden said.
Complicating the equation is unambiguous public opinion. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 59 percent of Americans want the accused terrorists tried in military tribunals, rather than civilian courts.
The same poll found 68 percent don't believe such suspects deserve the constitutional protections of a civilian trial.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found 55 percent favor military tribunals for the accused terrorists, while 39 percent support civilian federal court.
The same poll found 56 percent approve of the way Obama is handling the threat of terrorism — compared with 45 percent who approve of his handling of the economy and 43 percent who support him on health care.
Republicans traditionally have an edge with voters on national security. The GOP is targeting Obama's relative strength on the issue by taking aim at the terror trials and the decision to read Miranda rights to the accused Christmas Day airline bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, among other concerns.
Critics contend the administration, in veering sharply away from the policies of former President George W. Bush, wants to make the trials a criminal rather than military proposition.
A bipartisan bill in Congress would block Obama from spending $200 million in federal funds to conduct the trials in New York City.