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Pentagon set to begin hearings for 14 detainees

WASHINGTON—The Defense Department said Tuesday that hearings for 14 "high-value detainees," including the alleged mastermind of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, will start Friday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but that reporters would be barred from the procedures.

The 14 were held in secret CIA prisons for up to four years, and none is known to have appeared before a hearing of any sort before the group was transferred to Guantanamo in September. Questions have repeatedly been raised about whether the 14 were tortured while in CIA detention.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said at a news briefing that the hearings will be closed "based on national security concerns." He promised to release censored transcripts "as expeditiously as we can," but said officials had decided not to provide the names of the suspects, even after the transcripts have been released.

Reporters have been allowed to observe previous hearings of so-called Combatant Status Review Tribunals for Guantanamo detainees, the aim of which is to determine whether a detainee is an "enemy combatant."

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, a detainee advocate group which represents one of the 14, Majid Khan, denounced the hearings.

"Any suggestion that Khan's CSRT proceedings would comport with our values and traditional notions of justice is demeaning to all Americans. ... We might expect this in Libya or China, but not America, " it said. The hearings "routinely" rely on information derived by torture or other coercion, the group said.

The U.S. government charges that Khan, who grew up in Baltimore, Md., was an operative for alleged 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and explored ways to blow up gas stations and poison reservoirs in the United States.

The hearings, which also exclude attorneys, are likely to be the prelude to a decision by President Bush to try the 14 men before military commissions that Congress established last year.

Defense officials said the hearings for the 14 must be closed and the transcripts reviewed because the detainees could reveal sensitive intelligence information.

"It is not a safe assumption that simply because detainees have been in detention for some time, their information is stale," said a senior defense official who could not be identified under Pentagon-imposed ground rules.

But administration critics charge that its real motivation for secrecy is to blot out claims by the men that they were mistreated, or information about the covert CIA sites where they were first held.

Pressed to promise that such information would not be redacted from transcripts of the sessions, the defense officials declined to do so—but said national security would be the only reason for censorship.

"The goal ... is to be as transparent as we can be," Whitman said. "These individuals are unique."

The officials also declined to say which detainee will appear at Friday's hearing.

The group includes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, who allegedly was to have been the 20th hijacker but was refused a U.S. visa.

When Combatant Status Review Tribunals were first introduced in the summer of 2004, the Pentagon went out of its way to airlift reporters to Guantanamo. Under ground rules in effect then, the reporters could not name the captives.

The cramped trailer where the hearings took place held a table for the panel of three military officers; a table for the service member recording the events; and two shackle points beside plastic chairs for the captive and any fellow captive he may bring as a witness.

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(Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report from Miami.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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