9/11 Trial Another Distraction for Traveling Obama

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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, top, and co-defendants Walid Bin Attash, second from top, and Ramzi Bin al Shibh, left, attending a pretrial session Dec. 8, 2008, in Guantánamo Bay

The news broke at 6 a.m. in New York, just as President Barack Obama was preparing for an evening press conference in Japan. In an age when electrons travel the world in an instant, it took no time at all before everyone knew: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks who was subjected to waterboarding 183 times, will face trial in a New York City federal court with four other Guantánamo Bay detainees.

The President did not appear pleased hours later when he was asked about the decision on an international stage, in a ceremonial room at the Kantei, the office of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Obama's initial reaction was to say that Attorney General Eric Holder would be explaining the decision. "I don't want to preempt his news conference," the President said. But he realized he had to say more. "This is a prosecutorial decision, as well as a national-security decision," Obama continued, again distancing himself from the plan. "I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice."

So it became yet another distraction. Just hours into his first trip to Asia as President and his 17th visit to a foreign country, one thing has become clear: Obama is having a tough time keeping the international focus on Asia with so much else going on in the world and at home.

The official message on the President's travels through Asia is that the U.S. cares about the region. "America understands the importance of Asia in the 21st century," White House aides repeat, in various iterations, with some frequency. On Friday night in Tokyo, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes went so far as to call Obama, "the first Pacific President that the U.S. has had" — a reference to Obama's childhood years in Hawaii and Indonesia.

But all the focused messaging is running up against international and domestic events. On the flight to Asia, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs came to the press cabin on Air Force One only to be barraged with 12 consecutive questions about Afghanistan, followed by a question about Iraq. Later on Friday night, in Tokyo, during a briefing by Gibbs and Rhodes about Obama's speech on Saturday morning laying out a vision of U.S.-Asian relations, another news event intervened: White House counsel Greg Craig was leaving the White House, to be replaced by Obama's personal and campaign attorney, Bob Bauer.

At first Gibbs declined to confirm the story. "I'm not at this point going to make any personnel announcements," he said. Just minutes later, however, after being told that the White House had circulated the news via e-mail, he confirmed Craig's departure. Gibbs maintained that Craig's decision to leave, which has been rumored for months, was not related to Craig's role in setting a one-year deadline for removing detainees from the Guantánamo Bay detention center, an ambitious deadline that is unlikely to be met.

Perhaps in anticipation of the distractions of the news cycle, Obama's aides have scheduled only three press conferences during his weeklong trip, one each in Japan, China and South Korea. At each event, only one member of his traveling press corps will be able to ask Obama a question, though such questions tend to have multiple parts. The President has also scheduled one-on-one interviews with some U.S. media outlets.

By contrast, on Obama's first visit to Europe and Asia, the President held two full press conferences and answered multiple questions from traveling reporters at several other events. At the time, the press access was seen as extraordinarily generous for a traveling President.

As it now stands, no issue is as big a distraction from Obama's daily message as Afghanistan. At an evening press conference, Gibbs expressed frustration over one typical line of questioning — that the review of troop levels in Afghanistan is taking too long. "I'm tired," he said after a pause noting that he wanted to choose his words carefully. "This President is taking the time to get this decision right," Gibbs said. "We are closer after that meeting to getting to a strategy that everybody believes has an opportunity to being successful." He went on to criticize several news outlets for reporting prematurely that Obama had made a decision about the number of troops he plans to send to the region.

After chastising those reporters who had not heeded White House warnings and published leaked speculation about President's Afghan decision, Gibbs admitted that the time change, long flight and lack of sleep might be getting to him. "See, I went cranky on that one," he said, prompting laughter from the press corps. The President is also sure to need patience as the trip progresses, lest he too get cranky at the focus of the international press.