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Sept. 11 codefendants said to plot legal strategy

Cuba witnesses say ‘brothers’ meetings’ held

By Peter Finn
Washington Post / December 24, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four codefendants 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 US 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 The military has allowed the gatherings to continue because charges have not been formally withdrawn in the commission process, despite the announcement last month that Mohammed and the others would face trial in Manhattan near Ground Zero.

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 website of a local station. Both the Justice Department and the US attorney’s office in Manhattan declined to comment on the report.

In hearings at Guantanamo Bay, the five detainees have trumpeted their role in the Sept. 11, 2001, 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 US District Court.

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 sources said the five have not yet established a common position on the role of defense counsel.