The on-again, off-again trial of alleged Sept. 11 plotters at the military tribunal at Guantánamo has become a real-life version of the recurring comic-strip tale of Charlie Brown and the football. Every time lawyers think they’ve got the ball rolling toward an eventual trial, something happens to frustrate the action.
The latest disruption occurred this week as lawyers dutifully trooped to the U.S. military facility near the eastern tip of Cuba for what was going to be yet another hearing leading to an eventual trial for the five men accused of conspiring in the 9/11 attacks that killed almost 3,000 people on U.S. soil. (“This time I’m really going to kick that ball into orbit!”)
But before things could get rolling, defendant Ramzi bin al-Shibh blew the whistle. The translator assigned to the defense, he said, worked for the CIA at a so-called “black site” where he was held from 2002 to 2006 and thus should not be on his team. That halted action temporarily until the presiding military judge on Wednesday overruled this objection. He said it was too early for a prolonged delay, but meanwhile lawyers continue to investigate whether the translator was planted on the defense team as a spy for the prosecution.
So now the ball is teed up again, but for how long? What if defense suspicions are confirmed? If the hearings are later shown to have been tainted? Will they have to start all over again?
The point is that virtually every new round of hearings produces more reasons to support the claims of those who believe the Guantánamo process is hopelessly flawed.
As Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg outlined on Monday, trial preparation for the accused 9/11 plotters has been repeatedly delayed by side issues such as that of the translator. That includes claims of unlawful influence, a dispute over work rules that require military judges to relocate to the island and the role of female guards assigned to escort duty — not to mention countless procedural and legal delays tied to the unique Guantánamo process.
Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary, the senior Pentagon official overseeing the war court, wrote in an internal Pentagon memo obtained by the Miami Herald that the tribunal met only 34 days in 2014 and averaged five actual court hours each day — at a cost of $78 million (not including the costs of the 153 U.S. military forces assigned to the court).
That comes out to a tidy $458,823 an hour. And for what? The only activity has involved often futile efforts to sort out tangential pretrial issues such as the ones mentioned above.
Understandably, the families of the 9/11 victims who have been waiting for more than a decade to see justice done are thoroughly discouraged.
The best solution, as has been obvious for years, is to send those inmates not cleared for transfer — 68, at last count — to a secure prison in the United States under some form of congressionally approved commitment to keep the public safe.
That would have a fourfold benefit: It would put an end to the ridiculous cost of keeping the Guantánamo facility open; eliminate the issue of inhumane treatment, as they would henceforth be governed by the same widely accepted guidelines applied to inmates in a conventional, maximum-security prison; strengthen the legal basis for their detention; and eliminate what former President George W. Bush called “a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.”
Otherwise, those who want to see justice applied to the accused terrorists and those running the war court will be doomed to endless frustration. Just like poor ol’ Charlie Brown.