The trial of five Guantánamo captives accused of the Sept. 11 mass murder won't begin until next year at the earliest under a timetable set out Monday by the legal authority in charge of the war court.
Retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald notified lawyers on both sides of the case that he will accept recommendations on whether the case should go forward as a death penalty prosecution until Jan 15, 2012. Moreover, he also set the same deadline for Pentagon-appointed lawyers to offer their opinions on whether all five men should be tried simultaneously.
Prosecutors swore out a capital case against confessed 9/11 plot mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his four alleged co-conspirators in May after Attorney General Eric Holder abandoned a plan to have a civilian judge and jury hear the case in a Manhattan federal court.
Since then, the case has been mired in delay while some members of the Pentagon-paid defense teams try to obtain security clearances to meet the accused at Guantánamo and start work on their cases.
They have been held at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba since their transfer from CIA custody in September 2006. The government alleges the five men were the organizers, financiers and trainers of the 19 men who hijacked the four aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001, and then slammed them into the World Trade Center, Pentagon building and a field in Pennsylvania.
The Obama administration halted the Bush-era 9/11 prosecution while it reformed the military commissions and considered where to put them on trial.
MacDonald’s instruction to both prosecutors and defense attorneys on Monday was the first written indication that the Navy’s former top lawyer, now overseeing commissions, was considering whether to have the five men tried separately.
He had already indicated that he would entertain arguments on whether the case should go forward seeking the execution of the five men but added in his email to attorneys Monday that, “you may include any comment on the issue of a joint trial.”
Only one other Guantánamo war court prosecution is in the pipeline — the death penalty case against alleged USS Cole bombing architect Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, also a former CIA captive. The chief military commissions judge, Army Col. James Pohl, is expected to hold an arraignment in that case later this month.
Meantime, the Pentagon is preparing a viewing site at Fort Meade, Md., near Washington, D.C., for reporters to watch the proceedings by a 40-second-delayed closed circuit feed as an alternative to making the trip to Camp Justice at Guantánamo. The military is also preparing a viewing site in Norfolk, Va., for the families of the 17 American sailors who were killed in the Cole attack off Yemen in October 2000.