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Plea deal talks are in limbo for the five men accused in the 9/11 attacks

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A year ago, there was big news in a major terrorism case. Settlement talks were underway for the five men accused in the 9/11 attacks. Plea deals could finally bring the case to a close, but now those talks are in limbo. Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team is here to explain that holdup. Hey there.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: All right, Sacha, let's just get to it. Why the delay here?

PFEIFFER: Well, it is not for lack of trying to reach a deal. The 9/11 judge has canceled all public hearings in this case for the past year so lawyers can focus on negotiating. The goal is to have Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - the alleged 9/11 mastermind - and his four co-defendants plead guilty in return for up to life in prison. But there are key issues only the Biden administration can answer, like where would these men serve their sentences, and what health care would they receive? Because some of them have injuries from torture. The administration has not provided answers yet, and that's created an impasse. When I asked one Guantanamo defense attorney, Alka Pradhan, what the sticking points are, this is how she put it.

ALKA PRADHAN: From our end, nothing at all. I mean, we're just waiting, really, until we get a go-ahead that the agencies even want to continue with plea negotiations. Everything is stuck.

SUMMERS: So again, these settlement negotiations - they started a year ago. Should it take that long to answer questions like where these men might serve their sentences?

PFEIFFER: You know, some people say everything involving Guantanamo moves slowly. And Gitmo is such a political minefield, that most presidents have not wanted to expend much political capital on it. But one person who says President Biden should be speeding up the process is Scott Roehm. He runs the Washington, D.C., office of the Center for Victims of Torture.

SCOTT ROEHM: There's no reason, after 10-plus months, that these questions couldn't and shouldn't be answered by the higher-ups in the administration.

PFEIFFER: For now, though, Juana, Biden's focus at Guantanamo seems to be releasing prisoners who have already been cleared to leave. That's the status of more than half of the 32 men still being held there. In the past month alone, three inmates cleared for release have been let go. These are prisoners not related to the 9/11 case. These are so-called forever prisoners who've been held for up to 20 years without ever being criminally charged. Some were cleared years ago for release and are no longer considered a security threat. So Biden has been reducing Guantanamo's prison population by finding other countries to take these cleared prisoners, but he has been publicly silent about the 9/11 settlement talks.

SUMMERS: OK, so that's the White House. But what else can you tell us about political support for these proposed plea deals?

PFEIFFER: It's mixed. Some Republicans vehemently want the 9/11 defendants put on trial and executed, but Guantanamo has become so notorious for dysfunction and gridlock, that even their opposition to plea deals seems to be softening. And many people think a settlement is the only solution at this point. Here's Scott Roehm again.

ROEHM: The 9/11 case is not going to trial in the military commissions. It is not remotely close to that, and it never will be.

SUMMERS: OK, and what about the relatives of 9/11 victims? Is there any consensus among them on how they feel?

PFEIFFER: It's also mixed. One person I spoke with has a very pragmatic view. His name is Glenn Morgan. His father died in the World Trade Center collapse, and he wants the 9/11 defendants to get the death penalty. But he also does not want them to die in prison without being found guilty, so he would support a settlement. Here's Morgan.

GLENN MORGAN: It really would be sad if people like my mother die without seeing her husband's killers get prosecuted. And shame on us if we, as Americans, or our politicians can't get out of our own way.

PFEIFFER: But Juana, the U.S. Defense Department seems to be lowering expectations for a quick resolution of the 9/11 case. It told me that settlement talks are expected to continue for, quote, "some time."

SUMMERS: Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team. Thank you.

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

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.