A detainee accused of coordinating propaganda for Osama bin Laden admitted Thursday at a military hearing here that he was an al Qaeda member and began to address the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before he was cut off.
Ali Hamza Ahmed Sulayman al Bahlul, 36, of Yemen, made the admission while arguing that he wants to represent himself before the military commission, which will decide whether the suspect conspired to commit war crimes against the United States.
"I am from al Qaeda, and the relationship between me and September 11 . . .," Bahlul said before Army Col. Peter E. Brownback III stopped him and continued the hearing behind closed doors for 30 minutes.
Brownback told the five other commission members, who will serve as judges and jurors in the case, to disregard Bahlul's statement because he was not under oath. Brownback directed them not to consider it as evidence.
But prosecutors said they believed the statement could be used. A commission spokeswoman, Navy Lt. Susan M. McGarvey, said later that Bahlul's statement may be introduced as evidence because rules do not require officials to inform suspects that what they say can be used against them.
It was not clear what Bahlul intended to say about his relationship to the Sept. 11 attacks. He did not pick up where he left off when the public proceedings resumed.
The scene was similar to Zacarias Moussaoui's July 2002 declaration during a federal court hearing that he was an al Qaeda member and wanted to plead guilty to his role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States with involvement in the attacks, was representing himself at the time. A week later, he rescinded his guilty plea and claimed that he had no advance knowledge of the attacks.
Also Thursday, military officials pledged to examine growing complaints of translation problems in the courtroom and in other hearings the military is holding here to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that granted "enemy combatants" access to federal courts.
Bahlul, allegedly a longtime associate of bin Laden's, was wearing a polo shirt, trousers and black sneakers when escorted into the hearing room. He was not shackled.
Prosecutors say Bahlul served as a bodyguard for the al Qaeda leader and as his propagandist, creating motivational videos, such as one that glorified the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in a Yemen harbor that killed 17 sailors. Military prosecutors also contend that Bahlul unsuccessfully tried to arrange a satellite feed so bin Laden could watch news coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bahlul is the third of four men scheduled to have the equivalent of pretrial hearings here this week. They are the first to be brought before U.S. military commissions since the end of World War II.
After Bahlul sat next to his military-appointed defense team -- Navy Lt. Cmdr. Philip Sundel and Army Maj. Mark A. Bridges -- the presiding officer of the commission began to ask about his legal counsel. Bahlul said he wants to represent himself or have a Yemeni attorney.
"No one should worry about me causing problems or being loud or saying anything that will be inflammatory," Bahlul said through an interpreter. "I can give you my word."
Brownback told him military commission rules do not permit defendants to represent themselves and require that defense lawyers be U.S. citizens who can be given security clearances to review sensitive evidence.
But Bahlul insisted that he will not participate in the trial if he cannot represent himself or work with a lawyer from Yemen. "If the American system will not allow me to represent myself, I will be forced to attend and I will be a listener," he said.
The translations of some of Bahlul's remarks raised questions about the quality of the interpreters. At one point, an interpreter reported that Bahlul said the "American government is under no pressure" to make the Sept. 11 statement, when he actually said the American government had not pressured him to make the statement, according to Fuad Yahya, a court-appointed interpreter who was sitting in the audience.
Yahya and Arabic-speaking journalists said they noticed numerous problems Thursday with interpreters, who are in short supply because they must be U.S. citizens who can hold security clearances. The defense lawyer for another suspect said his client could not understand the interpreter.
"What happened today, I really didn't expect it to this extent," Yahya said after the hearing. "Part of it could be nervousness. Part of it could be the transmission. Part of it could be they are not up to the task."
Civil liberties and human rights groups monitoring the hearings here said correct translations are critical to fair trials, and representatives questioned how a military commission could permit a suspect to implicate himself in a crime and then use that as evidence in the upcoming trial.
"What we saw today was a failure," said Deborah Pearlstein, an attorney for Human Rights First.
The legal adviser to the commissions disagreed. "It's been our goal all along to have a process that is fair," Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Hemmingway said at a news conference at the Pentagon, adding that he will examine the complaints about the interpreters. "We feel that the process that has been set up complies with international norms. And I think you've seen that we've got some very talented counsel on both sides who are working this issue."
At the end of Thursday's two-hour hearing, Brownback gave defense lawyers and prosecutors several weeks to prepare legal arguments over whether Bahlul can represent himself or hire a foreign national as an attorney. A decision by the chief of the military commissions is not expected until after Sept. 30.