WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department said Tuesday that hearings for 14 "high-value detainees, " including the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, will start Friday at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but that reporters would be barred from observing.
The 14 were held in secret CIA prisons for up to four years, and none is known to have appeared before a hearing of any sort before President Bush ordered their transfer to Pentagon custody in September.
Questions have repeatedly been raised about whether the 14 were tortured while in CIA detention.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said at a news briefing that the hearings will be closed "based on national security concerns." He promised to release censored transcripts "as expeditiously as we can, " but said officials had decided not to identify the detainees in the transcripts.
Reporters were encouraged to watch earlier staged sessions of the so-called Combatant Status Review Tribunals, or CSRTs, to illustrate Pentagon transparency in a process that decided retroactively whether Guantánamo detainees met the minimum Bush administration definition of an "enemy combatant."
LIKE LIBYA, CHINA
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, a law firm that represents one of the 14, Majid Khan, denounced the hearings.
"Any suggestion that Khan's CSRT proceedings would comport with our values and traditional notions of justice is demeaning to all Americans. . . . We might expect this in Libya or China, but not America, " it said. The hearings "routinely" rely on information derived by torture or other coercion, the group said.
The U.S. government charges that Khan, who grew up near Baltimore, was an operative for alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and explored ways to blow up gas stations and poison reservoirs in the United States.
The hearings, which have all along excluded attorneys, are a necessary stepping stone to any decision by President Bush to put the 14 men on trial before military commissions.
Defense officials said the hearings for the 14 must be closed and the transcripts reviewed because the detainees could reveal sensitive intelligence information.
"It is not a safe assumption that simply because detainees have been in detention for some time, their information is stale, " said a senior defense official who could not be identified under Pentagon-imposed ground rules.
But administration critics charge that its real motivation for secrecy is to blot out claims by the men that they were mistreated, or information about the covert CIA sites where they were first held.
Pressed to promise that such information would not be redacted from transcripts of the sessions, the defense officials declined to do so -- but said national security would be the only reason for censorship.
GOAL IS TRANSPARENCY
"The goal . . . is to be as transparent as we can be, " Whitman said. "These individuals are unique."
The officials also declined to say which detainee will appear at Friday's hearing.
The group includes Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, who allegedly was to have been the 20th hijacker but was refused a U.S. visa.
When Combatant Status Review Tribunals were introduced in summer 2004, the Pentagon went out of its way to airlift reporters to Guantánamo. Under ground rules in effect then, the reporters could not name the captives.
The cramped trailer where the hearings took place held a table for the panel of three military officers; a table for the service member recording the events. Three news reporters sat at another table, just a few feet from where the captive and any fellow captive he might bring as a witness, were shackled.
As Navy secretary, Gordon England was in charge of overseeing the process and pointedly mentioned media transparency in a Pentagon briefing on Aug. 13, 2004.
"Last week the press sat in on the first tribunals, " said England, who has since been named deputy secretary of defense. "We have press personnel sitting in each of the tribunals. I'm not sure they're in every one, but they're open to the press for each one."
Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from Miami.