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A Mythic Figure, in Person

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 6, 2008 10:12 AM

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, June 6 -- For five years he was alternately considered a mythic superterrorist bent on destroying the American way of life, a victim of CIA torture, and one of the scariest men U.S. officials had ever captured.

Until Thursday, he was a phantom, hidden away in U.S. detention. The view the world had of Khalid Sheik Mohammed was a hasty 2003 snapshot of a man obviously captured off-guard, probably while asleep. His hair a mess, a thick black mustache surrounded with stubble and a white T-shirt loosely hanging over large tufts of chest hair, he became an icon of everything the United States has been fighting against.

But on Thursday morning, he was in court. In person. Real.

As roughly 25 members of the international media streamed into the rear observation room in a high-security courtroom here, all strained to catch their first glimpse of Mohammed. He sat in an almost commanding pose at the front of the courtroom, a large fan of gray beard covering his face, thick black glasses obscuring his eyes.

Mohammed and four other alleged top al-Qaeda operatives, accused of being at the heart of the conspiracy that unleashed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, were in court for their arraignment on charges of orchestrating the deaths of thousands of Americans.

Mohammed chatted jocularly with the four detainees lined up in chairs behind him, trading smiles and short bursts of laughter and friendly gestures. He tugged lightly at his white-streaked beard, toyed with his glasses, flipped through pages of papers on the desk in front of him.

It was then, some defense lawyers say, that Mohammed set a plan in motion to convince the detainees to shed their lawyers and declare that they wanted to represent themselves. It was just before 9 a.m., as the men talked and passed oral messages from front to back and back to front, when Mohammed appeared to have taken control of the one thing he could, orchestrating a joint effort to defy the controversial military commissions and declare them illegal and untenable.

Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, diminutive and extremely thin, sat in the back row. The close associate of Mohammed who allegedly helped finance the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks appeared more timid than the rest, sitting on a pillow in his leather-covered, four-legged chair just feet from the observation room. Army Maj. Jon Jackson, a military defense lawyer who represents Hawsawi, later said that Mohammed intimidated Hawsawi into dropping his defense lawyers, asking at one point when Hawsawi was leery of the move: "What are you in the American Army now?"

"It was clear Mr. Mohammed was trying to intimidate Mr. al-Hawsawi into not having us as counsel," Jackson said after the hearing ended on Thursday evening. "He was shaking."

At 9:33 a.m., Mohammed spoke to the court for the first time, uttering a single "Yes" into a microphone in answer to the question of whether he speaks English. He then asked for a translator, but a good one, because he said he had been "mistranslated" at his Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantanamo more than a year ago, when someone "put many words in my mouth."

Just 24 minutes later, after the other detainees answered a series of mundane questions, Mohammed stood up to address the court. He opened by chanting Koranic verses in Arabic, complete with an English translation for the court, offering a few unexpected lyrical moments. But his words then veered sharply. Although polite and almost deferential, Mohammed quickly made clear his dislike of America.

"I consider all American laws under the Constitution to be evil and not of God," Mohammed said. He particularly took issue with a society that allows "same-sexual marriage" and other things that "are very bad." He said he could not accept a U.S. lawyer because the nation is "still in Iraq and Afghanistan and waging their crusade."

When Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, the presiding judge, tried to interrupt Mohammed, Mohammed would hesitate and say, "Go ahead," essentially granting permission to Kohlmann to speak. While Kohlmann was extremely patient with Mohammed, he blew up several times at defense attorneys, sternly telling them to "sit down, sit down" in the middle of their arguments.

Kohlmann also had a surreal conversation with the five defendants toward the end of the hearing, discussing with them the parameters for them to review and handle classified evidence if they do represent themselves. Military prosecutors said with no apparent irony that they are prepared to hand over classified materials to the nation's arch enemies, although it is unclear whether the detainees would have access to witnesses or how a detainee would handle top-secret CIA materials.

"There will not be evidence they will not see," said Army Col. Lawrence J. Morris, the chief prosecutor for military commissions. Human rights advocates were skeptical, however.

Mohammed appeared to have equal disdain for the process, but he only briefly mentioned his "torturing" at the hands of U.S. officials, something he acknowledged he was warned not to mention in open court, lest a security official hit a button muting the audio to observers in the courtroom and at a media center nearby. That button was pushed at least a few times on Thursday when detainees appeared to discuss elements of their early captivity in secret facilities or the way they were treated.

"All of this has been taken under torturing," Mohammed said. "Then after torturing, they transfer us to Inquisition Land here at Guantanamo, and you tell everyone to sit down, sit down."

The case will continue to go forward, and while Mohammed has asked for the death penalty so he could become a martyr, he seemed content to stir things up on his first day in court. He sat smugly at the defense table after the others declared that they wanted to represent themselves, taking a legal approach to which they are entitled but one that could turn Guantanamo's highest-profile military commission into a circus.

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