U.S. Moves To Bring Accused 9/11 Plotters To Trial
Evidence is assembled from secret files
By David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis
Published: January 12, 2007
WASHINGTON: The Bush administration has set up a secret war room where it is assembling evidence to prosecute high-ranking Qaeda suspects, including the accused mastermind of the September 2001 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, government officials said this week.
The effort to sift the classified files of the Pentagon, FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies amounts to the first concrete steps that the government has taken to press ahead with war crimes trials of high-level terror suspects under a plan announced by President George W. Bush in a speech last September.
At the time, Bush said that Mohammed and 13 other high-level terror suspects had been transferred from secret prisons around the world to the military detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they would be held pending trial.
The preparation of cases against the high-value operatives appears to rebut many who doubted that Qaeda suspects like Mohammed would ever be brought to trial. Critics in Congress and human rights groups had asserted that such trials would not be feasible because they would expose harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA.
Prosecutors for the Qaeda defendants will feature a mix of military and civilian personnel. Some officials said that no decision had been made about who would lead each prosecution, but others said that the trial of Mohammed would probably be undertaken principally by Justice Department lawyers, who would run the prosecution in a military courtroom in Guantánamo.
Mohammed, whose role in the Sept. 11 attacks would make him the centerpiece of the government's effort to bring terrorists to justice in a court of law, could be held responsible for about 3,000 deaths in the attacks, officials have said.
The prosecution of high-value detainees is separate from the long- planned trials of lower-level Qaeda figures, some of whom have been at Guantánamo since 2002 and who are expected to be tried before the more important terrorist suspects.
However, both high- and low-level suspects will be tried under the same rules, which are contained in legislation approved in October.
Officials said that they hoped to bring the first charges against leaders of Al Qaeda this summer or fall and that trials could get under way in early 2008. The current plans are to use the new trial procedures first against some of the lesser Guantánamo defendants as kind of a test run beginning this summer.
Those trials would involve some of the detainees who had already been charged under the previous system of military commissions that was struck down by the Supreme Court.
The initial trials of detainees held at Guantánamo will not carry the possibility of a death penalty. But officials said that they expect to seek to have some of the senior Qaeda officials executed if they are convicted.
A team of lawyers from the Justice and Defense departments, along with civilian and military investigators, has begun poring over intelligence files and interrogation reports about Mohammed's role in the Sept. 11 attacks and other potentially prosecutable crimes, like the killing of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and other terror plots.
According to the final report of the independent commission that investigated the 2001 attacks, Mohammed acknowledged under interrogation that he was a major planner of the Sept. 11 plot. The report said that Mohammed first proposed the airliner attacks to Osama bin Laden and supervised the core group responsible for the hijackings.
Other prosecutions, like the cases related to the attack in 2000 on the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 sailors, are likely to be led by military lawyers. In preparation for the trials, the Justice Department has been quietly recruiting lawyers from the ranks of experienced terrorism prosecutors, mainly in New York and Virginia.
The new war crimes trials will operate according to rules modeled after the military justice system that were approved in legislation known at the Military Commission Act, which was signed into law last fall. The law has been criticized by some Democrats in Congress and members of human rights groups, who say that the procedures are flawed because they favor the government.
Prosecutors could use hearsay evidence or secondhand testimony, but could not use information obtained under torture. Even so, that would mean that virtually any information obtained by the CIA would appear to be admissible because, in the view of Justice Department legal opinions, none of the harsh techniques it used amounted to torture.
At their trials, the accused would have the right not to testify and would have the opportunity to present evidence and cross-examine witnesses against them. The trials would be open unless a military judge determined that they should be closed to protect classified information. Defendants would have the right to review the evidence to be used against them.