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Gitmo Trial For Sept. 11 Suspects Resumes — Then Abruptly Halted


The trial of five men accused of planning and facilitating the 9/11 terrorist attacks resumed today at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the proceedings stopped almost as soon as it began. This was the first session of this war court since last summer, and the first since the release of a Senate report that detailed brutal interrogations in secret prisons against some of these defendants. It was those interrogations that complicated today's hearing. NPR's national security correspondent David Welna was in the courtroom and joins us now from Guantanamo. And David, first, before we talk about why the hearing was stopped, what was the scene like in the courtroom this morning?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Robert, this all took place in a giant metal shed built here about seven years ago, which the military calls an expeditionary legal complex. The security is extremely tight. It's surrounded by high fences topped with rolls of razor wire. And inside, the five 9/11 defendants were seated with their legal teams on one side of the courtroom with alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the first row. He and a couple of others wore military-style camouflage jackets. And not one of them rose when all of the courtroom was ordered to rise for the military judge. Among those looking on in the courtroom were eight family members of people who'd been killed in the 9/11 attacks.

SIEGEL: Now, as I understand it, David, at least one of the 9/11 defendants raised the objection that prompted that judge to suspend the hearing. Tell us more about the objection.

WELNA: Well, alleged 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al-Shibh told the judge right at the outset that the newly assigned interpreter, who was sitting right next to him, was the same man who'd been at the secret CIA prison where bin al-Shibh was brutally interrogated before being brought to Guantanamo nine years ago. The American lawyer for another defendant told the judge that her client, who she described as visibly shaken, also recognized the interpreter as having been present while he was tortured.

SIEGEL: How credible is that claim that an interpreter who'd been at a secret prison, at least while a couple of these men were interrogated, should then end up in the very courtroom as part of their defense team?

WELNA: Well, the American lawyer who spoke up said it was either the biggest coincidence ever, and if it wasn't, it was part of what she called a pattern of infiltration of the defense team. Now, of course, it is in the interest of the 9/11 defendants to try to slow down a proceeding that could eventually lead to them being executed. Right now, lawyers from both sides are trying to see if the interpreter who defense lawyers demanded not be allowed to leave this island, really was involved in the CIA's so-called black sites, where suspected terrorists were interrogated.

What we do know is that last year, the FBI did try to recruit at least one and possibly two informants from one of the defense teams. And the fallout from that is what's really held this case up for many months. But more broadly, they're really inventing things as they go along in this newly created military commission, so things have been stuck for years in pretrial motions that could last many more months before going to trial. And that trial could take a very long time, even when it does begin.

SIEGEL: David, what impact could the Senate report that detailed the torture of some of these defendants have on this trial?

WELNA: Well, you know, so far in the legal proceedings the impact isn't very clear. Before any of the declassified information that appeared in the Senate report can be used in this war court, it will have to be approved by various agencies, including the CIA. And that process is expected to take at least until September. But outside the courtroom, I think the Senate report has changed things. People here on the defense teams no longer have to talk about alleged torture and secret prisons. They point to the report itself as backing up their clients' claims.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Welna reporting from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. David, thanks.

WELNA: You're welcome, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.