Khalid Sheik Mohammed and 4 other detainees in Guantánamo Bay will soon be presented with charges, then face a joint trial before a military commission on allegations they orchestrated the worst terror attack in U.S. history.
The Pentagon on Wednesday cleared the way for a death penalty trial against five Guantánamo Bay captives charged with engineering the Sept. 11 attacks.
Retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, in charge of military commissions, signed off on the capital trial against alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 46, and 4 accused co-conspirators.
The men face charges of terrorism, hijacking aircraft, conspiracy and murder in violation of the law of war, among other charges, in the system set up by President George W. Bush within months of the attack, and then reformed by President Barack Obama in 2009.
If convicted, they could be sentenced to death using a method to be decided by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, or his successor.
The charges accuse the 5 men of organizing the attacks, including funding and training the 19 men who hijacked the 4 commercial airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, and then crashed them into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa., killing 2,976 people.
The lead trial attorneys are retired Army Col. Robert Swann and federal prosecutor Edward Ryan — the same 2 men who were designated to prosecute the case by the Bush administration.
Obama halted the previous trial and Attorney General Eric Holder was initially determined to prosecute them in Manhattan, not far from the site of the World Trade Center. But he reversed course a year ago after politicians protested, alternately, that a federal prosecution would put an even large al Qaida bull’s-eye on New York City, would snarl traffic for security concerns or would risk acquittal if a civilian judge or jury concluded that the evidence against them was the fruit of torture.
Pentagon prosecutors have been preparing their case since then.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said the decision to go forward with the trial at Guantanamo did not diminish Obama's desire to close the detention center.
“There have obviously been obstacles in achieving that. But he remains committed to doing that,” said Carney. “In the meantime, we have to ensure that Khalid Sheik Mohammad and others who are accused of these heinous crimes are brought to justice. And a procedure is now underway to ensure that that happens.”
The decision drew a rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has funded some of the 9/11 defense lawyers.
The Obama Administration “is making a terrible mistake by prosecuting the most important terrorism trials of our time in a 2nd-tier system of justice,” said Anthony Romero, the ACLU executive director. He said the war court was “set up to achieve easy convictions and hide the reality of torture, not to provide a fair trial.”
“Whatever verdict comes out of the Guantánamo military commissions will be tainted by an unfair process and the politics that wrongly pulled these cases from federal courts, which have safely and successfully handled hundreds of terrorism trials.”
All 5 men were interrogated by the CIA in secret overseas prisons — Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, according to declassified CIA documents — before their 2006 transfer to Guantánamo for trial. Once in Cuba, he bragged to a panel of U.S. military officers that he was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks “from A to Z.”
The chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, has said that by law no evidence derived through torture can be used at a Guantánamo trial. MacDonald signed the 123-page charge sheet alleging the 5 men engaged in a years-long conspiracy that trained the 9/11 hijackers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, funded them in wire transfers from Persian Gulf nations and dispatched some of them to the United States from Germany. It will be up to an 11-member team of U.S. prosecutors to prove it to a military jury of a dozen or more members.
But first, the military has to present the charges at the remote prison at the U.S. base in southeast Cuba, assign a judge to the case and give them a formal appearance at the war court compound, Camp Justice, probably in May. Months of pre-trial challenges, including wrangling over defense resources and whether the men are competent to defend themselves, are likely to follow.
The other 4 men facing the death penalty charges in the joint trial are Walid bin Attash, 33, a Yemeni; Ramzi Bin al Shibh, 39, a Yemeni; Mustafa al Hawsawi, 43, a Saudi; and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, 34, a Pakistani who is Mohammed’s nephew and also known as Ammar al Baluchi.
The Pentagon’s war court witness advocate, Karen Loftus, sent an email to Sept. 11 families on Wednesday advising them of the case development. Some survivors and victims of the 9/11 attacks will be invited to watch the proceedings at Guantánamo, selected through a lottery. Most will be directed to remote viewing sites being set up in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Maryland that will show closed-circuit broadcasts of the proceedings.
The broadcasts are on a 40-second delay in case someone in court divulges classified information, time enough for an intelligence center to muffle the proceedings behind white noise.
Loftus also described the military jury that will hear the Sept. 11 mass murder trial as “a panel of at least 12 members, whose function is analogous to jurors in a federal or state court. The case was also referred to as a joint trial, meaning that all 5 of the accused will be tried together, unless the military judge later determines that any or all of the accused should be tried separately.”
A Pentagon-paid defense lawyer for Ali, accused of wiring money to the 9/11 hijackers, has argued his client should not face a capital trial because he isn’t alleged to have killed anyone – or plotted to kill.
“Mr. Ali would not be eligible for the death penalty if this case were tried in federal court,” said attorney James Connell. “This attempt to expand the reach of the death penalty to people who neither killed nor planned to kill is another example of the second-class justice of the military commissions.”
Martins has assigned himself to the 11-lawyer prosecution team, which includes Justice Department lawyers Joanna Baltes, Jeffrey Groharing and Clayton Trivett as deputy trial counsels to Ryan and Swann. Trivett, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserves, and Groharing, a lieutenant colonel in the Marines, had also worked on the 9/11 prosecution during the Bush years.
(source: Miami Herald)