Latest Guantanamo Court Appearance by Alleged 9/11 Mastermind

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Rat droppings and mold, those were the issues for a US military judge in Guantanamo today. Pretrial hearings have begun at the Guantanamo naval base for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Also in court are four alleged al-Qaeda conspirators. Trial proceedings have been repeatedly delayed by everything from scheduling conflicts to a tropical storm, but the judge rejected a request for another delay because of a rat and mold infestation in the offices assigned to the defense lawyers. Arun Rath of our partner program FRONTLINE is in Guantanamo and was in the courtroom today. Arun, rat droppings and mold just one issue among many, I presume, but why front and center today?

Arun Rath: Well, it's become front and center because it sounds you know, almost kind of funny and silly, but it's actually quite a serious problem. I mean first people might think that this is a delay tactic on the part of the defense, but it was actually the Navy's own industrial hygiene officer who basically said that this place cannot be occupied; the mold is so terrible it is causing respiratory problems with the staff, the lawyers that were working there, including apparently one emergency room trip for one of the lawyers whose eyes were practically swollen shut.

Werman: Pretty incredible, so beyond these issues what's expected to come out of these hearings at Guantanamo?

Rath: The issues about the habitable offices were actually, they only took a small part of the court this morning. They will be returning to that in a serious way because right now the defense attorneys are working, they've got eight people working off of four computers and one printer, and they can't file their motions on time, which is one of the problems we saw. It's actually, Marco, it's been really remarkable to me that given all the delays that there have been in this, just how many problems there are still here. I mean leaving aside the mold and stuff, there are still problems starting up the court today with audio, with translations. There was a broken metal detectors, of all things. You know, when you think about the tens of millions of dollars that have been spent on security, it was kind of shocking.

Werman: So kind of ground rules, and speaking of ground rules, prosecutors have asked the judge at a pretrial hearing to approve what's known as a protective order. Explain that.

Rath: That involves basically any kind of sensitive information that the detainees may reveal in testimony that may come up in court. Basically, the classification means in a sense that anything that these men say is classified because of what they've been through. And we had a certain moment in the court this morning where the judge was trying to get a yes or no answer from one of the defendants as to whether or not he was willing to waive a right that would allow him to transfer an attorney. And his lawyer basically wasn't letting him answer because of that rule saying I can't even let him say yes because by your rule, anything that comes out of his mouth is presumed to be classified, so the back and forth with the judge over who actually had the authority to say that he could say yes. And the judge said look, in this particular narrow instance I have the authority and they proceeded from there.

Werman: And lawyers for the defendants say if this protective order is approved it's gonna hobble their defense. Did we see kind of a sign of that today with what you just described?

Rath: Most of today actually was spent on arguments about this motion whether or not the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four codefendants would actually have to be present in court for the hearings that are taking place. It's a very peculiar thing that's going on here, Marco, is that the reason this is getting dragged out so long is it feels like, I don't wanna sound flip about this, but it really feels like they're almost making things up as they go along here. And it's not as extreme as that literally, but because these things are so new, for instance, when they're making arguments in the court the prosecutor is referring to precedence from federal court, precedence from the universal code of military justice from court-martials because there's no precedent set in these brand new military commissions. They have nothing refer to, so they're kinda feeling their way through it. It feels you know, a little bit sketchy and tenuous.

Werman: Arun Rath of our partner program FRONTLINE, thanks so much.

Rath: Thank you, Marco, my pleasure.