GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Confessed al Qaeda kingpin Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his four accused co-plotters offered Monday to plead guilty to orchestrating the 9/11 terror attacks, a move that could leave President-elect Barack Obama to decide whether to execute them.
The surprise turnabout came in what was meant to be a routine pretrial hearing.
The Pentagon seeks the death penalty for all five men. And the trial judge postponed any pleas until lawyers sort out two key issues at the first U.S. war crimes tribunals since World War II:
Whether two of the five men are mentally competent to join the others in admitting to their roles in the worst terror attacks on U.S. soil;
And whether the 2006 act of Congress that created the war court allows accused terrorists charged in a capital case to submit guilty pleas, without a jury of at least 12 U.S. military officers present to hear them and the evidence.
Victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, among five the Pentagon sponsored to observe the hearings, offered opposing views on the prospect of executions.
''If there ever was a case that warranted the death penalty, this is the one,'' declared Hamilton Peterson, who lost his parents aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
''They do not deserve the glory of execution,'' added Alice Hoagland, whose son Mark Bingham died on the same flight, struggling with the hijackers to crash the airliner in a Pennsylvania field.
''We should ensure that these dreadful people live out their lives in an American prison,'' she added, ``totally under the control of the people they profess to hate.''
The defendants made no explicit mention of the death penalty, or ''martyrdom'' as Mohammed calls it, in an appearance before the tribunal judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley.
Instead, the judge asked each man whether he wanted to waive his right to challenge the charges, and whether he believed prosecutors could prove his guilt ``beyond a reasonable doubt.''
''I understand,'' Mohammed replied, going first. ``I hope that you will assign a proceeding in the near future, as fast as possible, to get over with this play.''
Mohammed earlier had declared his distrust of the system and said he would not distinguish among any of the Americans staging the trial -- from judge and defense attorney to President Bush and ``the CIA, who tortured me.''
The spy agency has confirmed it waterboarded Mohammed into confessing to plotting a worldwide string of terror, before his transfer to the prison camps here two years ago.
Added Yemeni Ramzi bin al Shibh, accused of helping the Hamburg, Germany, suicide squad: ``We the brothers, all of us, we would like to submit our confession.''
Nothing will happen soon. The judge instructed prosecutors to research and write a brief on whether the legislation that created the war court envisioned letting an accused plead guilty in a death penalty case.
Moreover, the judge said he would not accept guilty pleas from co-defendants bin al Shibh and Saudi Mustafa Hawsawi until the court resolves questions on their mental capacity to stand trial. PUT ON DRUGS
The prison camp has put bin al Shibh on psychotropic drugs. He allegedly helped a Hamburg al Qaeda cell, whose members became some of the hijackers. The health issue of Hawsawi, the plot's alleged financier, is contained in a still-classified memorandum his Army defense attorney filed with the court.
Mohammed appeared as his own attorney on Monday, his fourth hearing meant to set conditions for the joint conspiracy trial alleging the five conspired to have suicide squads hijack airplanes and then strike the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
The charge sheet lists the names of 2,973 dead, among them the firefighter trainee son of Maureen and Alex Santora, who died at the World Trade Center. Maureen Santora declared herself ''relieved'' that the men had admitted to the crime, and disgusted by their lack of contrition.
Bin al Shibh, for example, blurted out holiday greetings at the end of the hearing, which fell on the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, Eid al Adha.
He capped it with a grisly salute to the still at-large al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden: ``May God protect him.''
''I hope the jihad
continues and strikes the heart of America with all kinds of weapons of mass destruction,'' bin al Shibh said -- before the trial judge cut him off with ``that's quite enough.''
This was the first time the Pentagon brought victim observers, and the day ended with a ringing endorsement of the Guantánamo court and prison camps by four of the five victim observers.
Should the judge accept the guilty pleas, he would need to seat a jury or commission of 12 senior U.S. military officers to deliberate a sentence. On Monday the jury pool was scattered at posts around the world. PRESIDENT'S CALL
Ultimately, the president as commander-in-chief has the last say on execution, and the case involving Mohammed and his four accused co-plotters is not likely to be settled before President Bush leaves office Jan. 20.
Judge Henley disclosed the five men made their offer, signed by each alleged 9/11 conspirator on Nov. 4 -- Election Day -- after prison camp guards arranged for a rare joint meeting of the group.
The five wrote to ''request an immediate hearing to announce our confessions.'' They said their offer was without ''any pressure, threat or intimidation'' and invoked the name of ``God, . . . the sponsor of success.''
The Pentagon would not release their statement.
Henley is new to the case. He replaced a retiring Marine colonel, and said he first read the offer at Guantánamo on Sunday night.
Mohammed said at his June 5 arraignment that he welcomed ``martyrdom.'' DEFENSE CHALLENGE
Defense lawyers, both military and civilian, had planned to challenge the charges as well as the legitimacy of the war court. Judge Henley allowed them to call witnesses to pursue an argument that the prosecution was politically motivated.
''It will not render justice in any sense of the word,'' declared the American Civil Liberties Union's Anthony Romero, whose group has budgeted millions on civil defense lawyers. ``Torture is what's at stake here, and the only way forward is for President-elect Obama to make good on his promise to shut these commissions down.''
There was no mention Monday of the hearing's timing -- convened after the election of Obama as president, who has said he prefers traditional federal trials to the Guantánamo system.
Some lawyers warned against speedy execution of Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators, arguing for a court exploration of the circumstances of Mohammed's original confession.
''What should be a major victory in holding the 9/11 defendants accountable for terrible crimes will be tainted by torture and an unfair commissions process,'' said Jennifer Daskal, an attorney with Human Rights Watch.