Two Senators Secretly Flew to Cuba for Alleged 9/11 Mastermind's Hearing

By Dafna Linzer and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.

Though he did not reveal his attendance at the hearing, Graham said in an interview yesterday on Fox News that one could question whether Mohammed tried "to embellish his role in jihadist history."

"I believe the details will be corroborated," he said.

Steven Simon, a terrorism expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mohammed was involved in some of the successful and failed plots for which he claimed credit, including one to blow up airliners headed from the Philippines to the United States and another to blow up a flight en route from London. "He had this thing with crashing airplanes," Simon said.

Mohammed did not claim credit for attacks such as the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 or an attack on a U.S. consulate in Pakistan in June 2002.

In arguing that Mohammed deserves the status of enemy combatant, the Pentagon noted only his role in the death of 2,972 people on Sept. 11, 2001. Mohammed did not dispute that claim. But he tried to argue that other evidence against him, especially information on a computer at the home where he was arrested in March 2003 in Pakistan, did not belong to him. Evidence on the computer accounts for about half of the 22 findings the Pentagon presented against him at Saturday's hearing. Mohammed also disputed a report that he claimed to be an al-Qaeda military commander in a 2002 al-Jazeera interview. He asked to call two witnesses, also being held at Guantanamo Bay, to corroborate his version of events, but the panel refused.

Mohammed appeared at the hour-long hearing, speaking in Arabic and English before a panel of three officers, including a Navy captain and lieutenant colonels from the Air Force and the Marine Corps. An Air Force lieutenant colonel assigned to usher Mohammed through the tribunal process was also present, but Mohammed did not have a lawyer, was denied a request to call witnesses and was not shown classified evidence against him.

Defense officials said yesterday that it could take several weeks to rule on Mohammed's status, even though he boasted of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks and called himself an enemy combatant.

After Mohammed's status is determined, military prosecutors could decide to try him, through a military commission, for his alleged involvement in the attacks. The commissions, with rules outlined by Congress last year, are untested. Until then, he would remain in custody at Guantanamo.

Military commission charges can include the possibility of a death penalty, but the only case presented so far under the new laws -- against Australian citizen David M. Hicks -- was referred to a commission as a non-capital case. It is unclear whether military prosecutors would pursue a death-penalty case against Mohammed.

Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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