GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — A Yemeni man accused in the Sept. 11 attacks stood in protest at the war court Thursday over an apparent shakedown and seizure of legal mail from the cells of the alleged 9/11 plotters while the prisoners were in court earlier this week.
“In the name of God ... I’m not here to testify,” said Walid bin Attash, 35, before the judge, Col. James Pohl, cut him off.
“Sit down,” said the judge, threatening to have the Yemeni removed from the court.
Bin Attash, who lost a leg in battle in Afghanistan in 1997, and typically kicks off his prosthetic in court, stood silently at the defense table in a traditional white gown throughout a heated exchange between his lawyer and the judge, before settling into his seat.
At issue was a defense bid for an emergency hearing on an episode of guards or other uniformed troops going through the prisoners’ supposedly properly privileged legal mail earlier in the week. Bin Attash’s lawyer, Cheryl Bormann, announced in court Wednesday evening that guard had ransacked bin Attash’s cell and removed properly stamped legal documents.
Pohl pushed the issue to the afternoon, over the objections of several defense attorneys, notably Jim Harrington who said someone seized materials from the cell of his client, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, 40, that were long ago approved as his possessions.
Attorney David Nevin, paid by the Pentagon to defend the alleged 9/11 plot mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, protested that the document issue was fundamental to any attorney-client relationship and should supersede testimony from the senior Pentagon official responsible for the war court. Nevin invoked the fifth, sixth and eighth amendments.
Throughout the exchange, Mohammed sat quietly and flipped through papers in his typical white turban, camouflaged hunting jacket and orange-dyed beard awaiting testimony from retired Navy Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald by video feed from Washington, D.C.
Much of the week’s testimony has focused on whether intelligence agencies or troops have been disrupting confidential attorney-client communications in the death-penalty case — either by eavesdropping on privileged communications or by reading and sometimes rejecting mail between lawyers and alleged terrorists.
In recent weeks, defense lawyers have discovered hidden microphones in their meeting room at the prison camps and a secret censor who until recently could mute what spectators could hear from the war court.
The chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, said the Guantanamo detention center’s legal staff was investigating what happened earlier this week in the search of the cells.
For MacDonald’s testimony, the issue is what political or military influences caused him to swear out the charge sheets in 2011 after Attorney General Eric Holder abandoned an effort to stage the Sept. 11 terror trial in Manhattan. MacDonald testified in suit and tie that he spends three weeks a month working out of at a submarine base in Washington state and visits Guantanamo, the base and prison leadership, for about a week twice a year.
MacDonald is called “Convening Authority for Office of Military Commissions,” a uniquely military role that lets him review and decide whether to proceed on a case, to eliminate charges, whether to fund trial experts or witnesses, and can do a plea agreement.
The job theoretically has a bottomless budget, and the authority to reduce jury sentences.
MacDonald is a former Navy judge-advocate-general who retired as a three-star admiral after 23 years in the Navy to the West Coast and was hired by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.
Besides Mohammed, 47, a Pakistani man whom the CIA waterboarded 183 times before he ever got to Guantanamo; the others facing charges who came to court Thursday were his Pakistani nephew Ammar al-Baluchi, 35, and Saudi Mustafa al-Hawsawi, 44, the alleged travel arrangers for some of the 9/11 hijackers; and alleged terror plot deputies bin al-Shibh and bin Attash, both Yemeni.