In 1985, Army Capt. William Schneider was a Special Forces officer training to grapple with the global terror of the time — Palestinian hijackings, Germany’s Red Army Faction, Carlos the Jackal — when he broke his back in a car accident, abruptly ending his military career.
Last week, the commando turned civil servant came full circle, guiding himself in his wheelchair into the military commissions courtroom as lead prosecutor of confessed al-Qaida foot soldier Majid Khan. In a brief morning of open and closed hearings, Schneider helped set the stage for a 2019 sentencing hearing of the suburban Baltimore high school graduate who has pledged to turn government witness if a suitable case goes to trial.
“Let’s hope,” Schneider said in a rare interview by a case prosecutor authorized by his boss and fellow West Point graduate, Chief Prosecutor Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins.
Either way, Schneider said, securing a plea agreement with the man who left the United States and joined forces with the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind after the 9/11 attacks is “a success story. I think it’s a case that called out for resolution.”
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Khan’s longest-serving attorney, J. Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, got the U.S. government to declassify Khan’s account of his abuse in CIA captivity — sleep deprivation, prolonged detention in darkness, interrogation while being dunked in ice water. Dixon accused the spy agency of “savagery and treachery.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the secret CIA Black Site program showed that when Khan refused to eat, the agency forced bottles of Ensure into his rectum and in one episode “rectally infused” him with a “lunch tray” of pureed hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins. CCR called it “rape ... through the sexualized violence of ‘rectal feeding.’ ”
But in discussing the case, Schneider focuses on the confessed crimes of Khan, 36, starting with his delivery of $50,000 to an al-Qaida affiliated group that car-bombed a Marriott in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Aug. 5, 2003. “The detainee was complicit in a bombing that killed 11 people and injured over 100 others, including a couple of Americans. He strapped on a suicide vest in an attempt to kill the president of Pakistan. He also came to the United States to spy for Khalid Sheik Mohammed. It’s an important case. I think he did the right thing in pleading guilty to those charges.”
Schneider, 57, is among an increasing number of civilian attorneys serving alongside military lawyers doing temporary duty at the war court. Last week was just his second visit to the remote century-old outpost, which he declared accessible enough for a physically strong wheelchair user such as himself.
He also offered the story of how his ambition of becoming a career Army officer ended in New England in Hurricane Gloria in 1985. He was on duty, driving near Fort Devens, Mass. “I hit a deep puddle and the car hydroplaned, flipped over a couple of time and broke my back.” Another officer in the car broke his nose and wrists and returned to duty.
Schneider got a disability discharge, studied law in Maine, where he served as a federal prosecutor, state legislator, attorney general and, briefly, a judge. He quit the court 18 months ago to join Martins’ team where he serves as “dispositions lawyer,” meaning he has oversight of other potential Guantánamo war court cases besides the three currently bound for trial: For the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the USS Cole bombing and an Iraqi man accused of commanding al-Qaida’s army in Afghanistan after 9/11.
“I do see my service as a prosecutor as a continuation of the fight against terrorism, just in another form,” Schneider said of his disrupted Army career.
He comes off as avuncular in court, a contrast to the indignant tones of other prosecutors handling the contested cases that seek to execute six other former CIA captives for the Sept. 11 and Cole suicide attacks. He sounded casual as he told the judge that Khan’s crimes can carry the death penalty but a pretrial agreement limits his sentence to 40 years in prison.
Under the hybrid federal-military system operated by the Pentagon at Guantánamo, a senior Defense Department official negotiated that, depending on how helpful Khan is to the government, his prison sentence could end in 2032, when he’s 51. First, however, a military judge will seat a panel of U.S. military officers for a sentencing hearing, a mini-trial of sorts to officially sentence him for his crimes. If that jury sentences him to less than 19 years in prison, he can be released earlier — as a convicted war criminal, to circumstances negotiated by the United States.
Last week, Khan apologized for his “grotesque and pernicious actions,” sought forgiveness from people hurt by them, thanked Allah for showing him the right path, said he aspired to some day counsel “young jihadi wannabees” and invoked President Barack Obama’s approach to the Black Site program. “Just move on,” he said.
It was a surprising soliloquy. With sentencing set for February 2019, the jury box was empty. Just two reporters watched the hearing.
“Majid realized a long time ago that he had made some terrible decisions that really screwed up his life within a short period of time, and he made a commitment to do whatever he could to make up for it,” defense attorney Dixon said by email Monday. “It’s a big part of why he pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government even after being tortured.”
At sentencing, said Dixon, “We will definitely address Majid’s torture in CIA detention. But he does want to move on with his life.”
Schneider said that’s a defense prerogative, but he intends to argue the prosecution case for sentencing in open court. Under current war court rules, the places where Khan was held and the identities of the people who worked there are classified, meaning the defense might need to close court to delve into the CIA’s dark sites.
“I’m not buying into the characterization as ‘torture,’ ” Schneider said during the interview. “I don’t think it has an influence on my role in the process. My focus is on his conduct, his criminal conduct before his capture. And I will advocate for a sentence that addresses that adequately.” Turning government witness, or a goodwill effort to help the government, should count for something, he said.
Wheelchair-using prosecutor at the war court
In 2015, the Office of Military Commissions disclosed that it was undertaking $3 million in renovations at Guantánamo that included purchasing an airport off-loading ramp for wheelchair users, acquiring a handicap-accessible van, adding ramps around the war court compound Camp Justice and acquiring a former American Red Cross building on base that met Americans with Disability Act specifications. Officials said at the time, the work was being done for future case prosecutor William Schneider but would be perhaps useful for other wheelchair users if some cases came to trial.
“I’m everywhere I need to go. The courtroom is quite comfortable to operate in,” Schneider said last week, declaring the base loaded with troops eager to assist. “I spoke to a soldier today who offered to help me with something. I said, ‘Thanks I’m able to do it myself,’ ” he said in an interview. In his four-day stay, he said, he made it to the base’s Irish pub O’Kelly’s; the commissary, which he called ”the PX” from his Army days; and said he maneuvered easily in and around the “Expeditionary Legal Complex,” the crude war court compound thanks to the strategic use of wooden ramps. He also had lunch one day at Gold Hill Galley, the Navy dining facility, where he was seen navigating his chair down a no-ramp sidewalk onto a road.