War court prosecutors Tuesday screened videos of hijacked airliners striking the World Trade Center on 9/11, a first in the Sept. 11 mass murder case, in a daylong bid to demonstrate that the attack was a conspiracy.
Throughout it all, the man who once boasted that he ran the plot “from A to Z,” Khalid Sheik Mohammed, sat at the lead defendant’s table chatting with one of his lawyers, as usual. In the spectators’ gallery in back, men and women who lost close family in the attacks pulled a separation curtain to shield them from view of other court spectators.
The occasion was an incremental step toward the death-penalty trial. Saudi defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi, 49, is challenging the authority of a trial by military commission, arguing that the United States was not at war at the time. Prosecutors say it began in 1996 when al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden declared a jihad on America and allegedly began discussing “The Planes Operation” with Mohammed.
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Hawsawi was captured with Mohammed in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on March 1, 2003 and taken to secret CIA prisons for interrogation, a three-year detour into the spy agency’s dark sites that has caused delays in the trial, which has no start date.
Hawsawi is accused of arranging finances and travel for some of the hijackers. So prosecutors called FBI agent James Fitzgerald to describe the events of the hijackings and used news videos to illustrate them. Fitzgerald, who worked on organized crime for the bureau until Sept. 11, 2001, read from instructions found in one hijacker’s lost luggage — shave, bathe, be cheerful, expect resistance. It was entitled, “The Last Night.”
The narrative was meant to be dry and factual, overarching information about the day when 19 hijackers commandeered four commercial airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center buildings, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field — killing 2,976 people.
But painful, intimate details stood out. An alphabetized manifest of United Flight 93 showed hijacker Ahmed Alnami’s name on line four, highlighted in yellow, just above passenger Todd Beamer, who fought the hijackers, forcing the airliner to crash into a Pennsylvania field rather than make it all the way to the nation’s capital.
The material is not trial evidence yet. Defense lawyers will get to challenge that later.
Instead, Fitzgerald offered a sampling of some hijackers’ martyrdom videos — or pre-death video statements, as prosecutor Ed Ryan chose to call them. They laid out al-Qaida grievances toward America including the presence of U.S. troops in the Arabian Peninsula and Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.
One film, released after the attack, was a prerecorded video of hijacker Ahmed al-Haznawi superimposed on a photo of the burning World Trade Center.
“We went out to die with honor,” Haznawi shouts. To America he advises: “Dig your graves. Make your coffins.”
In it, he’s wearing green hunting-style camouflage similar to a jacket Mohammed sometimes wears to court. Tuesday, the captive known as KSM was attired in white for several hours of descriptions of the attacks and conspiracy for which he could face execution as its mastermind. Hawsawi, however, voluntarily stayed away from the court session, as did two other men accused in the five-captive conspiracy.
Hawsawi’s so-called jurisdiction hearing was expected to resume Wednesday with testimony from retired FBI agent Abigail Perkins.
She and Fitzgerald interrogated the Saudi in early 2007, four months after he was brought to Guantánamo from a CIA prison. The FBI agents were part of what was known as a “clean team” because no abuse took place at the time.
Hawsawi’s lawyer, Walter Ruiz, argues even those Guantánamo statements are tainted by the CIA torture and should be excluded from trial.
Ruiz said a January 2007 document he received from prosecutors on the eve of Tuesday’s hearing shows the bureau collaborating with the CIA on the clean-team interviews. An example that struck Ruiz: The spy agency required the FBI agents to write up notes of their interrogations on a CIA-provided laptop, and send them to the CIA for a classification review.
“If the detainee asks for an attorney,” one portion says, “the agent should inform the detainee that, since he has not been charged with a crime by the military the detainee does not have the right to speak to an attorney and an attorney is not immediately available for consultation.”
Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg