Pentagon: 9/11 defense team linguist was CIA asset

Ramzi bin al Shibh posing for the International Red Cross.
Ramzi bin al Shibh posing for the International Red Cross.

The military confirmed Tuesday that a linguist tasked to serve on the death-penalty defense of an alleged Sept. 11 plotter had previously worked for the CIA but would not say whether he worked at a black site.

The revelation Monday by alleged plot deputy Ramzi bin al Shibh, 42, brought this week’s resumption of the Sept. 11 hearings, the first in six months, to a screeching halt.

All but one of the five alleged 9/11 conspirators said they independently recognized the stony-faced translator seated beside bin al Shibh at the war court from their years in the spy agency’s secret overseas prisons.

The five men, led by alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 49, 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.

Defense attorneys accuse the CIA of torturing their clients and then seeking to hide the evidence from their death-penalty trials. They also allege U.S. government and military interference is designed to disrupt their work with the accused.

The five defendants return to court Wednesday to figure a way forward after the revelation, the latest snag in pretrial hearings for the case that has no trial date.

The judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, gave lawyers Tuesday to conduct research, and trade classified court filings — starting with one by the prosecution Monday night that apparently described the controversial contract linguist’s intelligence background.

Tuesday afternoon, a Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins, said the linguist “has in the past made readily available to prospective supervisors his prior work experience with the United States government, including with the CIA.”

Caggins would not say whether the linguist worked at a CIA “black site,” an overseas prison where agents secretly interrogated prisoners and subjected them to brutal techniques — waterboarding, nudity, sleep deprivation, painful shackling and a quasi-medical procedure called rectal rehydration.

He did, however, distance the case prosecutor, Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, from the disruption, saying his office “does not have any role in providing linguists to defense teams in military commissions.” He said defense lawyers get to vet their own linguists.

“We vetted him. He denied it,” Bin al Shibh’s attorney, Jim Harrington, said Tuesday evening.

Harrington said his team pointedly asked the linguist whether he had “participated in any interrogation, questioning or done any work with respect to detainees. Any place. His résumé denies it. It says he worked someplace else — Reston, Va., from 2002 to 2006.”

Bin al Shibh was held in a series of secret overseas prison from his capture in Pakistan on Sept. 11, 2002until his arrival at Guantánamo four years later. Even then, according to the so-called Senate Torture Report, he remained in CIA custody.

Defense lawyers want more information.

“We will be filing motions for discovery regarding the former CIA interpreter utilized by Mr. Bin al Shibh’s defense team,” said attorney Cheryl Bormann, defending the alleged terror trainer Walid bin Attash, 36, who she said was shaken at seeing someone from a black site.

Bormann also said she would be seeking a court order from Judge Pohl similar to the one Pohl styled after disclosure that FBI agents were investigating and questioning members of the 9/11 defense team: Instructing the defense team members to disclose if they worked for the CIA or a CIA contractor, absolving them of any Non Disclosure Order they signed with the CIA.

“If people aren’t truthful about their background,” Bormann said, “there’s really no way for us to determine whether or not they are inappropriately assigned to our team.”

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9/11 trial delays

Earlier hearings in the 9/11 case have been sidetracked for different reasons:

▪  Defense lawyers discovered eavesdropping devices hidden in meeting rooms.

▪  It was learned that the FBI was secretly questioning defense staff, and a Justice Department investigation ensued.

▪  The prosecution sought a competency question.

▪  A judge’s decision to sever Ramzi bin al Shibh from the trial drew prosecution opposition.

▪  A train derailment in Maryland cut the Internet connection between the war court and a viewing site at Fort Meade.

The Miami Herald guide to the Sept. 11 war crimes trial here.