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'High-value' hearings held in secret

If all follows Pentagon plans, sometime today alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed or another of 13 so-called high-value captives will be led in shackles into a trailer at Guantánamo Bay and be chained to the floor.

There, the captive will get a chance to argue, after years in secret CIA custody, that the United States has no right to call him an enemy combatant.

Reporters who sat through dozens of these Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearings in 2004 and 2005 are familiar with the process. Guantánamo briefers have said they will conduct hearings for their celebrity captives in much the same way.

In fact, last fall, soon after President Bush ordered the CIA to transfer Mohammed and the other men to Defense Department custody at Guantánamo, officers handling the CSRTs dusted off the 2004 procedures.

There is one key difference: The Pentagon announced this week it was imposing a media blackout on the proceedings -- meaning a small table inside the room for three reporters subject to special ground rules will not be used. Instead of sitting in an anteroom until soldiers snap on surgical gloves and escort a prisoner inside the tiny, makeshift room with its chilly air conditioner, reporters will wait hundreds of miles away.


The Pentagon will release transcripts of the typically one- to two-hour exchange between the captive and a three-member panel of U.S. military officers, led by a colonel. Security experts will review the material before its release, but the Pentagon has provided no timetable.

It is unknown whether the high-value detainees at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba will discuss the circumstances of their capture or their treatment while held at so-called CIA black sites. However, military commanders have long shielded interrogation techniques to avoid tipping off at-large terrorists.

No attorneys will be at today's scheduled hearing.

The Defense Department created the hearings in 2004, soon after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detainees at Guantánamo could contest their captivity in federal courts. However, then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor left open the possibility that some other kind of review would do.

So the Pentagon panel emulates a battlefield review -- now four-plus years after their capture or hand-over to U.S. authorities a half a world away.


During those seen by the media, and later released in transcripts, the officers followed a script: Accusations -- not charges -- were announced; the captive was invited to swear an oath to Allah over a Koran; he was allowed to answer the accusations; then panel members asked questions.

Translation was mostly the norm -- from Urdu and Uighur to Arabic and Pashtu, with some U.S. military contract translators struggling to keep pace with a captive's long-winded and sometime circuitous pleas.

A few seemed surly, but many sounded polite -- noticeably when the presiding officer was a woman.

The hearings were all held inside prefabricated trailer-style buildings that were planted on gravel inside Camp Delta. They have toilets, special security monitors and mostly modest office furniture.

By the time reporters were invited to watch -- at first brought in by special airlift to observe what the Pentagon said was extraordinary transparency -- the military split the sessions in half to showcase the proceedings:

An unclassified portion, where reporters could watch a captive answer the broad allegations against them, but not any specific secret evidence.

''One plus one is two. But one plus five is not 10. You want to make one plus five equal 10,'' said a 27-year-old Yemeni with scraggly beard in November 2004. He was denying an accusation of supporting al Qaeda because he attended a Muslim school in Pakistan that the U.S. had linked to Osama bin Laden's terror group.

Then came the classified portion. Reporters were ushered out; guards once again donned surgical gloves and led the shackled captive out the door.

Afterward, the panel would study the captive's classified intelligence file in secret to see whether he met the Bush administration's definition of enemy combatant.

Criteria included membership in al Qaeda or the Taliban, association with al Qaeda or Taliban members or, in some cases, suspected terrorist sympathies. Because it was a battlefield-style hearing, the traditional U.S. rules of evidence did not apply.

The Pentagon shielded the results of the review, making it impossible to know if the young Yemeni was among the 38 of 558 detainees who were found not to meet the minimum definition of enemy combatant.