Two Senators Secretly Flew to Cuba for Alleged 9/11 Mastermind's Hearing
Friday, March 16, 2007
Two key congressional leaders secretly flew to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Saturday to observe the closed military hearing for al-Qaeda leader Khalid Sheik Mohammed, according to Capitol Hill staff members and Pentagon officials.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a committee member, watched the proceedings over closed-circuit television from an adjacent room, said Tara Andringa, a spokeswoman for Levin. They were joined by a representative from the CIA, according to one U.S. government official. Lawyers from the Justice Department did not attend the hearing, a spokesman for the department said.
The official transcript of Mohammed's hearing, called to establish whether he qualifies as an "enemy combatant," acknowledged the presence of five unnamed military officers, a translator and an official tribunal reporter. It is unclear why the presence of two senators who helped write the law codifying the tribunals was not announced. Yesterday evening, Graham said he was not prepared to discuss the trip, citing an agreement with Levin. "We'll issue a joint statement tomorrow, but we were there together," Graham said.
Saturday's trip underscores congressional efforts to exert oversight of one of President Bush's most controversial programs in his fight against al-Qaeda. After recent criticism from the Justice Department's inspector general over its use of surveillance powers under the USA Patriot Act, the Bush administration is under pressure to demonstrate greater transparency than it has been willing to offer in the past.
Though there have been hundreds of status hearings for Guantanamo detainees, last week's hearings for Mohammed and two other al-Qaeda suspects marked the first time that Combatant Status Review Tribunals were closed to the media and the public. Pentagon officials argued that hearings for Mohammed and 13 others who were held inside the CIA's secret detention program, some for years, have to be secret for unspecified national security reasons.
Eager to assert his central role in al-Qaeda's war against the United States, Mohammed went far beyond claims of masterminding the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. According to the transcript from his hearing, portions of which were made public Wednesday, Mohammed took credit for more than 30 plots and attacks over the past 15 years, including many for which the government did not hold him responsible.
His statements, as quoted in the Pentagon transcript, paint a deeper portrait both of Mohammed, who comes across as a confident and large-egoed man fascinated with airline plots, and of the inner workings of al-Qaeda. The transcript is also revealing of the Bush administration's efforts to buttress the case for the secret detentions and the opaque legal process under which detainees such as Mohammed are being held.
Mohammed's description of his treatment while in CIA custody was redacted from the transcript. Allegations of abuse that he raised with the panel were forwarded to the CIA's inspector general for investigation, two officials said.
John Sifton of Human Rights Watch said the redactions and the secret nature of the tribunals raised concerns about the process. "There have been serious allegations of torture, and yesterday's transcripts are redacted in the precise portion of the hearing when torture allegations are made -- which further casts doubt on the legitimacy of these proceedings," he said.
Yesterday, the Pentagon released an additional portion of the transcript in which Mohammed, in gory detail and boastful prose, said he personally beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in February 2002. Four people, including a British citizen, Sheik Omar Saeed, were convicted in July 2002 for Pearl's murder. Saeed was sentenced to death for masterminding the abduction and murder. The other men were sentenced to life in prison.
"I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew Daniel Pearl in the city of Karachi, Pakistan," Mohammed is quoted telling the military panel Saturday. "For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head."
FBI and CIA officials who reviewed a videotape of the murder have long known that Mohammed took part in the killing. His orchestration of the Sept. 11 attacks -- detailed in the 9/11 commission report -- was also publicly known for several years. But some officials and terrorism experts yesterday cast doubt on other claims by Mohammed, suggesting that he was exaggerating.