9/11 suspects had laptops, but they disappeared
The (Hamburg, Germany) Deutsche Presse-Agentur
FORT MEADE, Md. — Among the many twists and turns in the death penalty case against the five men accused of having plotted the 9/11 terrorist attacks is the question of the laptops.
Years after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-defendants were captured by US security forces and brought to the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, each received a laptop to start preparing his defence.
The case against the men has moved in fits and starts as the US government set up one system to try them, scrapped it and set up a second system now known as the Office of Military Commissions.
The laptops, which had no data connections to the outside world, were handed out in 2008, under the first system, prosecutor Robert Swann recalled Friday in a pretrial hearing in Guantanamo that was monitored by some media via internal broadcast to Fort Meade, Maryland.
"I was present in this room in 2008 and agreed to provide each of these gentlemen with laptops," Swann said. "They went into the detention facility with them."
But when that trial system was scrapped, the laptops were taken away in January 2010 and "bubble wrapped" to become part of "further investigation," according to Swann.
Until last week, Swann said, he did not know what had happened to them. He did not identify their current location in the courtroom, and said he would provide a chain of custody as soon as he nailed it down.
The judge, Colonel James Pohl, agreed that the computers should be handed to the defence attorneys under certain conditions.
Defence attorneys were eager to have them, as they contain documents prepared by their clients as first-person accounts of their journey from abroad to Guantanamo Bay.
"Your memory tends to be better when it's closer to the event," said James Harrington, counsel for Ramzi bin al Shibh.
It was not however clear how useful those accounts will be in the courtroom when the trial starts in January 2015 at the earliest or one or two years later, as suggested Friday by defence lawyers.
That's because the personal accounts of the terrorist suspects about alleged torture and abuse have been ruled classified by US security officials, who say the accounts pose a threat to national security and may not be submitted by defence counsel.
But even Judge Pohl, who works to keep a balance between the need for national security and the rights of the defendants, conceded there was a certain absurdity to the idea that writings by the suspects would be classified.
"Let's go to a simpler time. The accused writes on paper his thoughts about the case. Is that classified?" he asked.
Swann responded it "may well be classified."
"You're basically saying that the accused is generating classified material out of their own minds," Pohl quipped.
Swann backed down on the "thoughts" issue but insisted that there may be certain things on the laptops, put there by defence lawyers, that remain classified "no matter what."
Pohl ruled that the laptops would be placed at a secure central place in Washington, where defence attorneys would be obligated to share only nonclassified material with their defendants - in hard copy form that would have to be screened by security officials at the Guantanamo detention facility.
Whatever the restrictions on the information, attorney David Nevin who represents the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said: "We'll be glad to receive these materials."
Judge Pohl added that there was still an issue about what happened to the computers in the three intervening years.
Attorney Nevin and Cheryl Bormann, who represents Walid bin Attash, noted it was important to find out who had accessed the material in the interim.
It appeared the laptops had "made their way to an arm of the government that was conducting an investigation," Nevin said.