Alleged 9/11 plotters at Guantanamo offer to plead guilty

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Confessed al Qaeda kingpin Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his four 9/11 accused co-plotters offered to plead guilty Monday to orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, a move that may leave President-elect Barack Obama to decide whether to execute them.

The surprise turnabout came in what was meant to be a routine pre-trial hearing at the war court, or military commission.

Five persons impacted by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, including parents of some of the dead and a woman who was wounded, watched the proceedings from behind a blue curtain.

"These are just hateful individuals in every way," said Maureen Santora, whose son Christopher died while working as a firefighter-trainee at the World Trade Center. that dark day.

The Pentagon seeks the death penalty in their case.

But the defendants made no mention of the death penalty or ''martyrdom'' as Mohammed calls it, during the morning session before Army Col. Stephen Henley.

Instead the judge asked each man whether he understood that a guilty plea in the case waived his right to challenge the charges and was an agreement that the prosecutors for the United States could prove his guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."

"I understand," said Mohammed, kicking off the serial questioning. ''I hope that you will assign a proceeding in the near future, as fast as possible, to get over with this play."

His nephew, Pakistani Ammar al Baluchi, echoed his uncle in fluent English: "Yes, I do."

Added Yemeni Ramzi bin al Shibh, accused of helping the Hamburg, Germany, suicide squad: "We the brothers, all of us, we would like to submit our confession."

Yemeni Walid Bin Attash, who allegedly trained some of the so-called ''muscle men'' among the hijackers, likewise agreed.

The judge denied the fifth man, Mustafa al Hawsawi of Saudi Arabia, the opportunity to likewise agree because his defense attorney, Army Maj. Jon Jackson, has filed a motion arguing he was not mentally competent to do so.

Mohammed and the others appeared at the fourth pre-trial session of their Guantanamo commission in the complex mass murder case, in which they allegedly conspired to have suicide squads slam hijacked airplanes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, resulting in the deaths of 2,973 people.

Should the judge accept the guilty pleas, under the war court rules, he would need to empanel a jury or commission of 12 senior U.S. military officers to decide on the sentence.

The jury was not present at this remote Navy base on Monday. Instead the jury pool was scattered at posts around the world.

Ultimately, under the new war court set up by the White House and Congress, the president as commander-in-chief has the last say on military execution.

Judge Henley disclosed the five men made the offer, signed by each alleged 9/11 conspirator on Nov. 4 after prison camp guards arranged for a rare joint meeting of the group.

Henley is new to the case, replacing a Marine Corps colonel who retired -- and said he only read the offer at Guantanamo on Sunday night, after the Pentagon airlifted dozens of reporters and 9/11 victims to watch the proceedings.

"It seemed like a real bombshell to me," said Alice Hoagland, whose son Mark Bingham was among passengers who fought his hijackers on United 93, plunging the Washington D.C.-bound aircraft into a Pennsylvania field.

Hoagland, who has declared her opposition to the death penalty in the past, did not comment on the dilemma the development left the president-elect. "Obama is an even-minded and just man," she said.

Mohammed and four other alleged co-conspirators, all dressed in white prison camp uniforms, who were transferred to the prison camps here two years ago after years of detention by the CIA.

These were the last scheduled 9/11 hearings of the Bush administration and the first attended by families of the victims -- chosen by Pentagon lottery to watch the proceedings from a glass booth.

Mohammed said at the time of his June 5 arraignment that he welcomed ''martyrdom."

Earlier, Mohammed had fired his U.S. Navy Reserves defense counsel. The alleged mastermind of the attacks already had obtained permission to serve as his own attorney at the special war court created to shield potentially classified evidence from public view.

"I do not distinguish between the judge and our attorney and (President) Bush and CIA who tortured me," Mohammed declared.

Earlier, Henley read from their signed Nov. 4 filing with the court in which the five "request in order to announce our confessions, plea in full, with our complete satisfaction and our earnest desire in this regard, without being under any pressure, threat [or] intimidation."

The five also invoked the name of "God, . . . the sponsor of our success."

There was no mention Monday of the hearing's timing — convened after the election of Obama as president, who has said he prefers traditional federal court trials to the Guantanamo justice system.

Monday was also a major Muslim holy day, called Eid al Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice.

Lawyers warned against speedy execution of Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators, arguing in favor of a court exploration of the circumstances of Mohammed's original confession.

"What should be a major victory in holding the 9/11 defendants accountable for terrible crimes will be tainted by torture and an unfair commissions process," said Human Rights Watch lawyer Jennifer Daskal, a war court observer.

The CIA has confirmed that its agents waterboarded Mohammed into confessing somewhere overseas in secret custody at a so-called "black site."

Daskal added: "In light of the fact that these men are known to have been tortured and mistreated. . . . the judge should do a full and thorough factual inquiry to determine whether or not the pleas are voluntary."