Judge tells alleged 9/11 plotter's lawyers to seek funding for more brain scans

Army Col. James L. Pohl enters the judicial complex at Fort Hood, Texas, for a court-martial on July 7, 2005.
Army Col. James L. Pohl enters the judicial complex at Fort Hood, Texas, for a court-martial on July 7, 2005. Getty Images

A military judge told defense lawyers on Tuesday to ask elsewhere for more MRI scans of the brain of accused 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and to justify the need for more scans if the war court overseer or prosecutors refuse.

Defense lawyer Gary Sowards said in open court that a botched scan conducted at Guantánamo showed "significant and severe brain damage in Mr. Mohammed consistent with the torture in the black sites," publicly confirming McClatchy's exclusive report a day earlier that experts said a Jan. 31 scan of Mohammed's brain showed evidence of damage related to his CIA abuse.

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Proof of brain damage could complicate plans to seek the death penalty against the man accused of orchestrating the hijackings that killed 2,976 people on Sept. 11, 2001. He is charged, with four other alleged accomplices whom the CIA delivered to Guantánamo in 2006 after three to four years in the spy agency's secret overseas prison and interrogation network, known as black sites.

Mohammed's lawyers say the studies returned only 25 percent of the MRI their experts sought, and that they want a more comprehensive MRI conducted. Mohammed, 53, was waterboarded 183 times and repeatedly slammed into a wall, with a towel around his neck to protect his spine, to gain his cooperation in interrogations. The CIA held him for at least three-and-a-half years.

Army Col. James L. Pohl, the judge, was hearing Sowards on a request for an emergency order to not let a mobile MRI scanner leave this remote base in southeast Cuba, a first step toward getting another scan. But Pohl said he had never ruled that an MRI was necessary.

In this sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin, and cleared for release by the Pentagon, Khalid Sheik Mohammed wears a camouflage vest to a Oct. 17, 2012 pretrial hearing at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At far right, Army Col. James Pohl, the judge, sits with a court security officer at his side. Janet Hamlin ASSOCIATED PRESS

Because Congress has forbidden the transfer of terror detainees to the United States for any reason, the Pentagon brought the mobile MRI scanner to the base to study the brain of another former CIA captive facing capital war court proceedings in the USS Cole case. Court records show that a 9/11 prosecutor, Clay Trivett, offered to let the accused terrorists in the Sept. 11 case get MRIs too — until mid-February 2018, "at which time the MRI scanner will be returned to the United States."

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The Pentagon said it leased the magnetic resonance imaging equipment for four months and that the Office of Military Commissions said it will no longer fund its maintenance or arrange for technicians to operate it. But Trivett told the judge in court Tuesday that the MRI scanner was still at Guantánamo, as part of "the inventory of the Navy Bureau of Medicine" and that the prison command "has expressed an interest in purchasing it and have it remain."

It means that one Pentagon entity is considering purchasing it from another.

Meantime, Trivett said, the prison had signed a maintenance contract for the equipment but made no mention of whether an operator had been hired or assigned to conduct further studies.

Separately Tuesday, the attorney for alleged plotter Walid bin Attash revealed that Pohl had approved funding of an expert to read bin Attash's neck scan, after the Pentagon turned down the request. Cheryl Bormann said after court that her client needs additional scans too because the first MRI procedure returned incomplete results.

Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg narrates a tour of the legal compound that the military allows to be shown, and fills in the blanks on some of the rest, too.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179; @carolrosenberg