9/11 suspects are meeting to lay out strategy for New York trial

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 24, 2009

Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four co-defendants accused of organizing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are meeting to plot legal strategy in advance of their transfer to New York and are learning as much as possible about criminal procedure in U.S. federal court, according to sources familiar with the detainees' deliberations.

While the five men wanted to plead guilty in a military commission earlier this year to hasten their executions, sources now say that the detainees favor participating in a full-scale federal trial to air their grievances and expose their treatment while held by the CIA at secret prisons. The sources, who cautioned that the detainees' final decision remains uncertain, spoke on the condition of anonymity because all communications with high-value detainees are presumptively classified.

The detainees' "brothers' meetings" were set up to allow them to prepare for a trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The military has allowed the gatherings to continue because charges have not been formally withdrawn in the commission process, despite the announcement last month that Mohammed and the others would face trial in Manhattan.

The five accused have held two all-day meetings at Guantanamo Bay since Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said they would face federal criminal prosecution, according to Joseph DellaVedova, a spokesman for the Office of Military Commissions. DellaVedova said they break only for meals and prayers during the get-togethers. The military has also provided the men with computers in their cells at Guantanamo Bay to work on their defense.

It is unclear when the men will be transferred to New York. The Obama administration has yet to file a 45-day classified notice with Congress that it intends to move the prisoners into the United States, according to Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman. That suggests that their initial appearance in court in Manhattan will not come before February; the trial isn't expected to begin until late 2011.

A federal grand jury in New York is hearing evidence and testimony, according to a report by NBCNewYork.com, the Web site of a local station. Both the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan declined to comment on the report.

Courtroom as pulpit?

In hearings at Guantanamo Bay, the five detainees have trumpeted their role in the 9/11 attacks and broadcast their fealty to Osama bin Laden, causing some consternation among observers that the men will use their federal trial as a pulpit of sorts. Federal officials, though, say they are confident that some of the rhetorical flourishes that Mohammed, in particular, offered at Guantanamo Bay will be kept firmly in check in U.S. District Court.

"Judges in federal court have firm control over the conduct of defendants and other participants in their courtrooms, and when the 9/11 conspirators are brought to trial, I have every confidence that the presiding judge will ensure appropriate decorum," Holder said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month.

Facing trial with Mohammed are four other alleged key players in the Sept. 11 conspiracy: Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni; Walid bin Attash, a Yemeni better known as Khallad; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Mohammed's nephew and a Pakistani also known as Ammar al-Baluchi; and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, a Saudi.

Among other issues being raised at Guantanamo, Mohammed and the others are discussing defense counsel, sources said. At the military tribunal, Mohammed, bin Attash and Ali represented themselves with assistance from both civilian and military lawyers. Lawyers for both Binalshibh and Hawsawi, however, had challenged the mental competence of their clients to represent themselves, and the issue had not been resolved when the Obama administration suspended proceedings at Guantanamo Bay.

The lawyer question

The issue of self-representation will have to be taken up again in federal court for all five defendants.

In New York, lawyers for defendants in death cases are usually drawn from a "capital panel," a short list of attorneys with experience in death penalty cases. Attorneys will also need security clearances to handle classified evidence that is off limits to the defendants.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company