Why doesn't the public care about 9/11 war crimes trials?

Miami HeraldSeptember 11, 2008 

WASHINGTON — This time of year especially, Carole O'Hare gets stuck in a sad reverie at her California home, wondering about the last moments of her mother's life, alone, aboard the hijacked Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.

''I think of my mom sitting on that plane by herself,'' she says of Hilda Marcin, 79, listed as victim No. 2,964 on the Pentagon's 9/11 war crimes charge sheet. "I can't imagine what those 40 minutes were like. It must have been a lifetime.''

Seven years ago today, the horrific hijackings united this nation in grief and determination. Now, despite four years of on-again, off-again Guantanamo war crimes tribunals designed to get Sept. 11 justice, there is little evidence that the trials resonate with victims' families and the American public.

''The Guantanamo trials are much more secretive,'' said O'Hare, 56. "If Khalid Sheik Mohammed was the mastermind of the attack, and these attacks took place in the United States, that's where the trials should occur.''

Some blame the tribunals' location — a military outpost in southeast Cuba — and focus so far on foot soldiers. Attendance at the no-broadcast trials is by Pentagon invitation only. Others say accounts and allegations of detainee abuse tarnish the tribunals.

Moreover, ever since the world watched O.J. Simpson try on that black glove — live on television in 1995 — Americans have wanted high-profile trials be a shared, national experience.

And that may be how Guantanamo disappoints.

''It all feels so remote,'' says Marcia Clark, the former Los Angeles prosecutor and legal analyst at Entertainment Tonight. "Few people even seem to be aware of the trials going on, and fewer still seem to care.''

She blames a blend of indifference and ignorance.

"Partly because 9/11 is long past and people want it to stay that way. Partly because they can't see it, and partly because it's confusing: What is a military jury? Who are these defendants? What did they do, and what are we prosecuting them for?

''The sense I get from people is that it's all a black hole they know nothing about and the lack of TV coverage makes it all completely inaccessible,'' Clark said.

Defenders of the system say it's not their fault.

Detractors have for years hamstrung the trials through challenges to the post-9/11 rules that created them. So much so that in 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court found the first format unconstitutional, sending the White House to Congress to tweak and ratify it.

Now, 23 men have been charged with two convictions — one by pleading guilty. Hearings Wednesday at Guantanamo focused on Canadian Omar Khadr, who is accused in the 2002 grenade-killing of a U.S. commando, when Khadr was 15.

Add that the CIA had clandestine custody of the 9/11 accused for years. President Bush ordered their transfer to Guantanamo in September 2006; their trials are unlikely to start this year.

''There will come a point, I believe, in time when the American public in general will focus on the accountability for 9/11,'' says Charles ''Cully'' Stimson, a Heritage Foundation scholar who until last year was the Pentagon's Detainee Affairs czar. "I can't predict when that's going to be. But it will happen.''

Advocates defend the inaccessibility — and sometime secret hearings — as a national security necessity better suited to cope with new dangers in a war on terror.

Supporters say the trials grant terrorism suspects unprecedented rights akin to those the United States affords its own accused troops, but critics complain that the courts sacrifice American due process.

Hence, the disconnect.

Listen to veteran New York columnist Jimmy Breslin, 77, who swears he outran cops fleeing the crumpling towers at Ground Zero:

''I don't want officers sitting down there. I want a legal system,'' he said. "Are we supposed to throw all American ideals and values out the window to accommodate the CIA's mistakes, failures?''

But if a confession can't survive the scrutiny of a federal court judge in New York, says Breslin, "it's a travesty. No one would recognize the results of it.''

In June, the Air Force brigadier supervising the war court testified that he urged lawyers to think about how to use their limited resources to stage trials that "capture the imagination of the American people.''

Now, says spokesman Joseph DellaVedova: "Our focus is on providing full and fair trials for people accused of violating the laws of war. Although it may appear some cases receive more media or public attention than others, that has zero bearing on how the system operates.''

This summer, a military jury convicted Osama bin Laden's driver of supporting terror, as the al Qaeda chieftain's wheelman in Afghanistan.

It was the first U.S. conviction by war crimes tribunal since World War II.

But in a news cycle dominated by national presidential politics, the trial of Salim Hamdan was barely a blip in the blogosphere.

The driver's trial ''struck me as really peripheral,'' says retired Army Lt. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University international relations professor and Vietnam veteran whose soldier son was killed in a May 2007 suicide bombing in Iraq.

Once President Bush took the war on terror to Iraq, said Bacevich, the campaign "went far beyond simply trying to get the perpetrators of 9/11 and prevent another 9/11 from happening.''

The Defense Department holds 255 war-on-terror detainees at Guantanamo and has plans to put up to 80 on trial.

While presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama say they plan to close Guantanamo, their plans for prosecuting the captives could lead to more coverage of the trials.

Obama favors holding trials in standard military or civilian courts, where due process rights could collide with battlefield evidence.

As an architect of the trials that permit hearsay evidence and self-incrimination, McCain would keep the commissions but perhaps stage them on U.S. soil.

Stimson, the former deputy assistant secretary for defense, says the Pentagon has made ''a strategic mistake'' by declining to beam close-circuit feeds of the trials from Guantanamo to the United States so the public can watch them.

The Pentagon has plans to show closed-circuit feeds of the proceedings to pre-approved 9/11 victims at four military bases on the East Coast. Some family members will also be invited to watch at Guantánamo.

Meantime, the Pentagon has set aside 60 slots for journalists to cover the trials.

Reporters go as guests of the Department of Defense, on condition they sign ground rules that govern their $400 military travel from Washington, with whom they can speak and where they can sit, and that they pledge not to report ''protected information'' they may hear in court.

But the media center, at an abandoned hangar, reached capacity once — on June 5, when for the first time, prosecutors brought five men accused of the Sept. 11 conspiracy before a judge.

By the men's second appearance, the 60 journalists had dwindled to a dozen.

Former Amnesty International observer Jumana Musa, a harsh critic of the process, has watched the proceedings for three years and says the contrast with the federal trial of Zacarias Moussaoui couldn't be more stark. Observers, like her, commuted to the confessed 20th Hijacker's pretrial hearings and the trial itself in Alexandria, Va., when they chose, filed through metal detectors just like the media and general public, and spoke to scrums of journalists outside the court, without a government escort.

As Musa sees it, the distance between U.S. soil and Guantanamo lets the Pentagon control the conversation — something no government agency could do during the O.J. Simpson trial.

Then, Americans started out debating whether the football star turned actor was guilty or innocent. But the discussion went deeper to include race, domestic abuse, and wealth.

Were the terror trials open, Musa said, "you'd get no debate on whether these guys are really guilty or innocent." The alleged 9/11 mastermind declared at his first court appearance that he welcomed martyrdom.

Instead, she imagined trials stirring a different debate — on national security issues, "disappearance and torture and the CIA."

At the National Park Visitor's Center at Shanksville, Penn., volunteer Donna Glessner says she has a hunger to learn more about that dark day seven years ago that made her home ''the accidental real estate'' where Flight 93 went down in a desperate struggle between passengers and their captors.

Among her questions: Who was a part of the plot? Was the U.S. Capitol building the target? Or the White House? How was it planned?

''I hope that more information will come to light when those trials happen,'' she said.

"Whether the trial is at Guantanamo Bay or in New York City, wherever, the circumstances surrounding the trials are of interest.''

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