The KSM Guantanamo Bay Military Commission Hearing, United States v. Mohammed, et al., reconvened on Monday for the second session of pre-trial motion hearings. The first session of these hearings, held in October, 2012, devolved into what many referred to as “a circus.” The opening session of this week’s hearings produced several tense moments, including a proverbial “Man Behind the Curtain” incident (as Presiding Judge James Pohl’s control of the proceedings was superseded by some, in his words, “external body”); the hotly contested issue of the United States obstructing defense attorneys’ access to their clients arose; the debate over whether defense attorneys are truly free to communicate with their clients waged on; and, in their own words, the detainees offered the reasons why they choose to waive their rights to be present during the hearings.
The principal defendant, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his four co-defendants are each accused of eight distinct changes under the Military Commission of 2009, for their roles in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The charges against the accused are: Conspiracy, Attacking Civilians, Attacking Civilian Objects, Intentionally Causing Serious Bodily Injury, Murder in Violation of the Law of War, Destruction of Property in Violation of the Law of War, Hijacking an Aircraft, and Terrorism.
In a briefing on Sunday, Chief Prosecutor Brigadier General Mark Martins addressed the suggestion that the recent detainee victory in Hamdan II from the D.C. Circuit would nullify the Conspiracy charges in this case as well. Prosecutor Martins stated that he would proceed in this case, assuming that he will be directed to push forward and argue the merits of the Conspiracy charge, despite the decision in Hamdan II. The strategy would make sense in the event the Hamdan II decision is appealed to the Supreme Court.
In the case at hand, the decisions made by the Judge, Colonel James Pohl, in this phase of the commission will ultimately affect the evidence that can be discussed, and the procedure of the commision on the merits once all pre-trial motion hearings have been concluded.
The Prosecution alleges that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the “architect of the 9/11 concept” in its motion designed to exclude from the trial information that it asserts could compromise the United States’ national security. See Government Motion to Protect Against Disclosure of National Security Information, AE013, page 3. Elaborating on the claim that Mohammed was the “architect of the 9/11 concept,” the Prosecution charges that he conceived of and oversaw the preparation for the 9/11 attacks. Co-defendant Walid bin Attash’s alleged role in the 9/11 attacks was developing the method by which the hijackers smuggled weapons aboard the airplanes, in addition to training the hijackers in hand-to-hand combat. Following co-defendant Ramzi Binalshibh’s denied entry into the United States, his alleged role in the 9/11 attacks was to be the liaison between the chief hijackers and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Co-defendant Ammar al-Baluchi’s alleged role in the 9/11 attacks included financial coordination of the hijackers, in addition to procuring a cockpit operations video and flight simulator for the hijackers’ training. Co-defendant Mustafa al-Hawsawi’s alleged role in the 9/11 attacks was financial coordination of the hijackers. Al-Hawsawi’s actions allegedly included draining the hijackers’ bank accounts on the day of the attacks.
Who is the Man Behind the Curtain?
Static filled the gallery’s speakers, and the large video screens which displayed the 40-second-delayed proceedings went blank— to prevent lip-reading— while a red light flashed at the right-hand side of Judge Pohl’s desk. Observation of the hearing was shut down.
As soon as the audio and visual feeds resumed and the flashing light shut off, Judge Pohl expressed two immediate question/concerns: Who ordered the audio/visual feeds to be censored, because it was not on his authority and why were the feeds censored when Learned Counsel for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, David Nevin, had been discussing the unclassified portion of the Joint Defense Motion to Preserve Evidence of Any Existing Detention Facility? After resuming control of what information would appear on the record, Judge Pohl emphasized his concern that an “external body” is superseding his authority, remarking that it was if “if some external body is turning the commission off.”
Nevin, on behalf of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, echoed Judge Pohl’s concerns and asked: “Who is controlling these proceedings?”
Learned Counsel for Walid bin Attash, Cheryl Bormann, emphasized that the mere mention of a motion that contained some classified information seemed to trigger the censorship..
Defense Counsel for Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, raised an even more worrisome implication: If an external body above Judge Pohl’s authority is censoring the audio/visual feeds, that same external body might also be eavesdropping on the defense teams’ communication during the proceedings even when they are not addressing the court. After all, the courtroom is filled with microphones.
Only the Prosecution did not look surprised when the curtain of silence fell upon the courtroom, and they would not discuss what they knew in public.
Counsel discussed these issues in a closed session Monday afternoon, originally slated to deliberate the Military Commission’s Rule 505, which states that an established attorney-client relationship can only be severed for good cause, by the request of the accused, or upon application for withdrawal by counsel. Rule 505 became a pressing issue early in Monday’s session because former-Detailed Defense Counsel for Walid bin Attash, Marine Major William Hennessey, suddenly withdrew from representing his client. Bormann expressed bin Attash’s wish to sever the relationship. However, Judge Pohl stressed the importance of clients themselves, not their counsel or proxies, controlling the severance of an attorney-client relationship when good cause has not been shown, as is the instant issue.
A Case in Point: Denial of Attorney Access to Clients
Before Judge Pohl heard any motions for the day, Ms. Bormann addressed a prevailing issue throughout her representation of Walid bin Attash during the past year: the United States, she argued, obstructs defense counsels’ access to their clients. Bormann and her co-counsel for bin Attash attempted to meet with their client in private at around 8:15, shortly before the proceedings. Bin Attash was present; however, Bormann and her co-counsel were denied any access to their client until he was brought to the courtroom under guard. Bormann argued that today’s barrier to accessing her client was a case in point, following along the lines of other instances of impeded attorney-client access.
Are Defense Attorneys Truly Free to Communicate with Their Clients?
Amidst vocal reactions from the gallery behind the glass, Ms. Bormann told Judge Pohl, “You don’t live my life.”
Many of the families of 9/11 attack victims present did not, understandably, commiserate with Ms. Bormann. However, Bormann made her remark in the context of her ethical dilemma as an attorney whose attorney-client communication is seized for review by the United States. Ms. Bormann made the point, essentially, that she has not been truly free to communicate with her client since October 2011, thereby depriving her client of her ability to provide a fully informed defense against the charges against him.
Why the Accused Waive Their Rights to Be Present During the Hearings
Cheryl Bormann’s zealous advocacy for her client, Walid bin Attash, was matched in part by her client’s own level of engagement during the proceedings. Bin Attash, with a long, black beard, a head scarf, and a white tunic covered by a camouflage vest, spent much of the proceedings pouring over binders of information through thick, black glasses. Bin Attash made many notes and communicated often throughout the day with his co-defendants.
Anticipating that the accused would abstain from appearing in further sessions this week, Monday’s session concluded with Judge Pohl requiring the accused to answer whether they understood their right to appear at their hearings, and whether they had any questions for him about their rights. All of the accused answered in Arabic, through a translator, that they understood their right to appear at the hearings. But only Walid bin Attash took the opportunity to discuss why the accused, in their own words, waive their rights to be present during their hearings. Bin Attash, a Yemeni, explained excitedly in Arabic that the hearings’ process gives the accused no incentive to appear in court. The accused have been unable to develop trust in their attorneys despite a relationship lasting over a year. Bin Attash clarified that he and his co-defendants do not want this to be a “personal issue” with Judge Pohl. Bin Attash closed his comments by declaring that the Prosecution does not want the accused to hear or understand anything (presumably in reference to their rights and their waivers to appear at the hearings). Bin Attash:
“We have no motivation to come to court. We have been dealing with our attorneys for a year and a half, and we have not been able to build trust with them. Their hands are bound. The prosecution does not what us to hear or understand or say anything. They don’t want our attorneys to do anything.”
Adam Kirchner is a dual-degree student at Seton Hall University School of Law and the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He is a Research Fellow of the Center for Policy and Research and the Transnational Justice Project at Seton Hall University School of Law