Offer of Plea Serves Mohammed and Bush

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Khalid Sheik Mohammed has famously proclaimed himself an "enemy of Americans," but yesterday he found himself strangely in accord with the Bush administration: The White House and the terrorism suspect both appeared intent on bringing about a conclusion to his case before the current president leaves office.

In offering to plead guilty to mass murder, Mohammed and his co-defendants emphasized their wish to die as martyrs rather than put themselves through a drawn-out legal battle before a U.S. military tribunal. But analysts say both Mohammed and the Bush administration know that time is running short for scoring propaganda points before a new president takes over -- and possibly changes the rules.

Mohammed withdrew the plea offer after learning that it might complicate the chances for the death penalty and that two of his co-defendants would not be able to make the plea with him. But by essentially asking for death, Mohammed publicly thumbed his nose at the U.S. legal process and showed once again his talent for grabbing media attention, analysts said. At the same time, the White House and U.S. intelligence agencies seized on the prospect of his confession to claim vindication for their policies in the fight against terrorism, including the controversial tactics they used in capturing and detaining Mohammed and other al-Qaeda leaders.

"They're trying to milk the situation for everything they can," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University. "For both sides, reaching some kind of closure after such a long struggle is undeniably appealing."

Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has long said he wants a martyr's death, but his willingness to no longer defend himself against murder charges took many terrorism experts by surprise. Several linked the timing to the imminent departure of President Bush, who has risen to iconic status among Islamist extremists after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the controversies over treatment of terrorism suspects. By seeking to settle his fate before Bush leaves office, Mohammed could frame his struggle as a fight against Bush, experts said.

But Mohammed may also have perceived his chances for glorious martyrdom slipping away. Bush, who boasted of tracking down al-Qaeda's leaders "dead or alive," has consistently sought the death penalty for high-value captives, while President-elect Barack Obama has, as of yet, no such record. An execution would be a propaganda boon for al-Qaeda and would be "infinitely preferable to spending a life in prison," Hoffman said.

Even prison itself -- which, under Bush, carried at least the prospect of being seen as a "living martyr" for al-Qaeda -- would lose some of its status under an Obama administration, which would probably transfer inmates from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to ordinary prisons in the United States, Hoffman said.

For the Bush administration, there is little hope that Mohammed's future will be settled in the six weeks before the president leaves office. Yet, both the White House and U.S. intelligence agencies saw vindication in the readiness of Mohammed and his four co-defendants to confess to the Sept. 11 attacks.

The CIA, which whisked Mohammed away to a secret prison after his arrest in Pakistan in 2003, drew international criticism for its use of coercive interrogation techniques -- including waterboarding -- on the al-Qaeda leader. But Mohammed's offer to plead guilty to the deadliest terrorist attacks in U.S. history allows the agency to argue that its methods were warranted.

"From the agency's perspective, it's a confirmation that we got the right guy," said Jamie Smith, a 20-year CIA veteran and former director of the security contractor Blackwater Worldwide. "This was a good capture of a bad man."

A U.S. counterterrorism official echoed that conclusion, saying yesterday's developments validated the CIA's use of "lawful interrogations" that confirmed Mohammed's role as the mastermind of multiple terrorist attacks.

"He couldn't run from his past, even if he wanted to," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He's a proud, confirmed terrorist, one that we were fortunate to take off the battlefield."

Lawyers for groups critical of the Bush administration's policies noted that the cases of Mohammed and two co-defendants probably will not be resolved until many months after Bush leaves office. And the controversies over tactics used against the detainees will continue for years, they said.

"This has been a legal farce from the beginning to the bitter end," said Anthony D. Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union. "And perhaps most cynically, this flawed process will dump three guilty pleas into the lap of President Obama's new Justice Department, along with the question of whether any of these defendants are competent to offer these pleas after years of torture and abuse."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company