Accused 9/11 plotter asks about self-representation at Guantánamo war court, snagging hearing

An effort to restart the Sept. 11 pretrial hearings abruptly ended Monday morning after an accused terrorist spoke out of turn in court, asking whether he could represent himself in place of his Pentagon-paid death penalty defender.

“We have so many problems in the camp that take precedent over what is happening in the court. We are still in the black sites,” accused terrorist Walid Bin Attash declared before the judge, Col. James Pohl cut him off.

Co-defendant Ramzi bin al Shibh had separately asked the judge for clarification on his right to attend the proceedings before the judge ordered a 30-minute recess for the captives to consult with their American lawyers.

The case has been fundamentally stalled since Bin al Shibh’s lawyer, Jim Harrington, discovered 18 months ago that the FBI was investigating his defense team — creating a possible ethical dilemma of whether the team could effectively defend the Yemeni, or be too concerned for themselves.

A recent Justice Department filing declared the investigation over — “at this time” — with nobody charged with any crime, according to several lawyers who have seen the document.

So one of the first issues the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, was expected to take up Monday morning is whether the 18-month investigation presented a conflict that means Bin al Shibh could or should fire Harrington.

Meantime, guards brought the five, led by alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 50, to the war court compound for the first day of a 10-day hearing Monday. They are kept in a secret prison here, called Camp 7, which keeps former CIA captives far away from the majority of Guantánamo’s 114 prisoners.

The five men are accused of orchestrating, financing and training the men who hijacked four aircraft and killed nearly 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. They could face military execution if they are convicted. They include Mohammed, 50, his nephew Ammar al Baluchi, 37, Bin al Shibh, 43, Bin Attash, 36, and Mustafa al Hawsawi, 47.

Other issues on the judge’s 40-item agenda include a question of whether detainees can invoke a religious exception on being physically touched by female guards to and from court and legal meetings, something they say they were granted for years, and how a former CIA translator ended up assigned as Bin al Shibh’s personal in-court translator.

The last item on the two-week agenda involves the alleged mastermind’s bid to use the U.S. postal service to mail an unclassified letter to President Barack Obama. Mohammed wrote the president last summer but has been thwarted by both the prison and the prosecution in his bid to get it delivered.

The Pentagon prosecutor’s office brought nine victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to the court to watch the proceedings. One was in a hotel at the World Trade Center complex at the time of the attacks.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

An earlier version of this story said that two of the defendants had asked about self representation. In fact, only one did. A second asked about the right to be present, or waive attendance.