Two former Obama administration officials recalled how upset President Barack Obama was by a lack of progress in military commissions as well as the costs of holding war crimes trials at Guantánamo’s remote Camp Justice, a 9/11 defense team investigator testified Tuesday.
Navy Reserve Lt. Douglas Newman, a police detective in civilian life, said the episode emerged from his recent interviews with former White House Counsel Neil Eggleston and former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.
Defense attorneys are asking the Sept. 11 case judge to order both Work and Eggleston, as well as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to testify in a bid to get the case dismissed or pursued without the possibility of death penalty because of Mattis’s firing earlier this year of the overseer of the war court.
Prosecutors argue that Mattis fired overseer Harvey Rishikof because he was a bad manager, and didn’t go through Pentagon channels during his 10-month tenure as Mattis’ convening authority for military commissions. Defense lawyers argue that Rishikof was fired for pursuing swifter resolution of the case through plea deals that would have ended the possibility of military execution in the 9/11 case. They describe it as unlawful influence, essentially illegal political meddling, in the case.
According to Newman, Eggleston described Obama as being “seriously aggravated or agitated on several issues dealing with the commissions. The cost was an issue. The protracted nature of it. The perception that there wasn’t progress.”
At a meeting with Eggleston, Work and former Pentagon General Counsel Jennifer O’Connor, Newman said, the president instructed the participants to find paths forward in the long-running 9/11 case that began in May 2012. Newman did not provide a date for this meeting.
Separately, Newman said, Work described Obama as “being shocked” at the costs of the commissions — and a prediction that costs would grow 20 to 25 percent in the trial phase. The Pentagon has estimated the cost of running the commissions in the pre-trial phase at $100 million a year.
Newman’s testimony was sparse, limited to the types of information the case judge, Marine Col. Keith Parrella, could expect if he ordered testimony from Eggleston and Work at the next Sept. 11 pretrial hearing, in November.
The judge heard the testimony on the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings that killed 2,976 people in New York, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field. The alleged lead plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed and three of his four alleged accomplices did not come to court, exercising a typical waiver option the judge gives the accused after the first day of pretrial hearings.
This week’s was the 31st session of hearings in the case, and there still is no jury selection or start date for the trial itself.