By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
More than 6 1/2 years after devastating suicide attacks against the United States launched the Bush administration's fight against global terrorism, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot is scheduled to appear in a Guantanamo Bay courtroom tomorrow morning.
The military commission arraignment is expected to give the public its first glimpse of Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged Sept. 11 co-conspirators since they were captured years ago, beginning trial proceedings aimed at bringing the alleged al-Qaeda terrorists to justice.
Military law experts and those involved in the process believe the Sept. 11 conspiracy case could be among the most important criminal trials in modern U.S. history, with defense attorneys vowing to challenge the untested military commissions and government officials touting the system's fairness. The Bush administration's effort to try these men has met obstacles at every level, including at the Supreme Court, which put Congress in charge of rewriting the rules two years ago.
The conspiracy case could end up focusing as much on evidence of the suspects' wrongdoing as on the legitimacy of the military commissions themselves, with lawyers challenging their legality, the use of statements obtained via coercive interrogation methods, and rules that allow hearsay evidence.
"What this case is going to highlight is a need to go back to the drawing board yet again to create a system that is truly indicative of American ideals of justice," said Michael Berrigan, deputy chief defense counsel in the Office of Military Commissions. He arrived at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay this week and decried the system as hastily conceived and poorly implemented.
"To say that this is a transparent, full and fair process is laughable, because if you look at any honest academic assessment, it's not," he said.
Despite holding no military trials since Sept. 11, 2001, and securing just one conviction against a Guantanamo Bay detainee via a plea deal last year, military officials are pushing forward this week in the hope of showing the public how the system can give alleged terrorists fair trials and also hold someone accountable for the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. Prosecutors are pushing for a Sept. 15 trial date -- just days after the seventh anniversary of the attacks and in the stretch run of the presidential campaign. Defense lawyers say that date is far too soon.
Those who defend the military commissions say they give more rights to suspected terrorists than to those charged at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders, and that the process's fits and starts highlight the U.S. government's desire to do it right. David Rivkin, a member of the Justice Department under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said the public will see a "legitimate process" that will convince the world the alleged al-Qaeda operatives are guilty.
"It is enormously important to bring them to justice," Rivkin said. "People have argued about what is the right framework, but I don't think anybody has seriously claimed that they shouldn't be prosecuted. It will be therapeutic for the victims and American society as a whole to see this unfold. It's about a sense of closure, it is about a sense that there is no immunity for the wrongdoers."
Mohammed is the headliner among the five suspects who are alleged to have directly aided, planned or financed the attacks -- "high-value" detainees who have been considered the most important captures in global efforts to cripple al-Qaeda.
All are charged with offenses that could carry the death penalty. Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks, is a Pakistani native who studied mechanical engineering in the United States before allegedly plotting numerous attacks on this country and its allies.
The charges allege that Mohammed suggested the suicide mission to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 1996 and that the four others assisted in various aspects of the plot.
Walid Bin'Attash of Yemen is accused of running an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan where two hijackers trained. Ramzi Binalshib, also Yemeni, is alleged to have assisted the hijackers in getting flight training and financing. The Pakistani Ali Abdul Aziz Ali is alleged to have sent $120,000 to the hijackers and to have helped them enter the United States, and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi of Saudi Arabia is accused of helping the hijackers obtain money, Western clothing, traveler's checks and credit cards.
The detainees' appearances in court, which could give them a platform to verbally attack the United States, will also mark the first public sighting of a detainee held in the CIA's secret detention program.
All five were once held at secret overseas prisons, and some were subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding, though officials said it is unclear whether the public will hear about their experiences: A security officer will be able to hit a button to silence the proceedings to protect classified information.
The hearings are scheduled to take place in a new Guantanamo Bay courtroom, a boxy structure surrounded by concertina wire at the end of an old airstrip. The military is flying to the base about 60 members of the domestic and international media to view the arraignment.
Military officials have said that the detainees must appear in the courtroom for their arraignments, so it is possible that they will be forcibly removed from their cells and escorted in against their will, as has occurred before. Although the judge in the case will follow a "script" used in previous arraignments, it is unclear how long the proceedings will last, especially if the defendants speak.
"We have lots of indicia of what may happen, but nobody knows until we're in court," Berrigan said. "The only thing that is certain is that it's unpredictable."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.