Hours ahead of the arraignment of an alleged al-Qaida chieftain, a military judge on Tuesday ordered the Defense Department to admit dozens of members of the “general public” to the first-ever broadcast of a Guantánamo terror tribunal on U.S. soil.
Wednesday’s hearing was expected to be quick, and historic.
Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 46, is to be brought from a secret prison camp to a security courtroom for a formal reading of capital murder charges more than a decade after he allegedly engineered al-Qaida’s suicide bombing of the USS Cole warship off Yemen in October 2000. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed.
The hearing was to mark the first public appearance by the Mecca-born former millionaire merchant — nine years after CIA agents spirited him into a secret prison network where, his lawyers say, he was tortured.
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The order by the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, to open a 100-seat remote viewing site at Fort Meade, Md., added another layer of suspense — and sent Pentagon officials scrambling to make it happen.
“With the timing so close to the event and the unprecedented nature of the ruling allowing the public to attend,” said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, “attendance will likely be low.”
At issue was who would constitute the “general public” and how they’d get word to show up Wednesday at 7 a.m. at a gate to the Army post outside Washington, D.C. It houses both the super-secret National Security Agency as well as the Pentagon’s Public Affairs School.
By 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Breasseale said, one congressional staffer whose affiliation was not known, as well as a doctoral student and representative of an advocacy group, had signed up and would be joining 18 already approved journalists. “Anyone who comes to a Fort Meade gate asking to attend,” he added, “will be admitted to drive to the theater.”
If the war court's fragile and at-times beleaguered infrastructure works here, a screen in the Fort Meade auditorium will show the proceedings from inside Camp Justice on a 40-second delay.
That’s time enough for a security officer to hit a white noise button if Nashiri blurts out national security secrets — such as in which foreign country he was interrogated by CIA agents before his transfer to Guantánamo in 2006, and what they did to him.
Part of that is already known. A congressional inquiry and documents surfaced through the Freedom of Information Act show he was waterboarded, a technique that simulates drowning, as well as interrogated by agents who revved a drill and loaded a pistol near his head.
The first-ever broadcast had been planned for a handful of pre-screened journalists as part of a tightly controlled rebranding and transparency effort of the controversial military commissions. As a senator and candidate, Barack Obama condemned the court. As president, he reformed it in collaboration with Congress.
But Nashiri’s lawyers had pressed for greater transparency, arguing that the American public should see the court that President George W. Bush created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and was at one point shut down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A military judge presides and a jury of 12 senior military officers will be brought in, at the earliest next year, to decide if he is guilty of war crimes and, if so, if he deserves military execution.
“It is a court organized to convict. It is a court organized to kill,” said Indianapolis attorney Richard Kammen, a seasoned death penalty defender who is heading up Nashiri’s mixed military and civilian Pentagon paid team.
Judge Pohl’s order came as a surprise, in part because Pentagon security officers had not yet cleared for the public to see a motion filed by Nashiri’s defense lawyers on the proposal. It was still under seal Tuesday night on the Defense Department’s nearly $500,000 war court website.
Similarly, chief judge of the war crimes tribunal signed the order on Monday. But it was made public late Tuesday, giving the Pentagon Public Affairs division little time to respond and potential viewers even less.
The judge ordered the Pentagon to leave to Cole bombing victims and their families a second, 150-seat private screening room which was also to receive the first-ever U.S. soil transmission at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia.
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