National Security

Confessed al-Qaida terrorist to Army judge: Guantánamo war court's a ‘covfefe’

Majid Khan in a photo taken by the International Red Cross and released by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal group that represents him.
Majid Khan in a photo taken by the International Red Cross and released by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal group that represents him.

A confessed al-Qaida terrorist turned U.S. government informant who is awaiting sentencing at Guantánamo complained to a war court judge this week of problems between his attorneys and prosecutors at a brief war court hearing ahead of his 2019 sentencing.

“Over the last past six years, I’ve ... been struggling with this whole process and the whole military commission system is pretty stagnant,” prisoner Majid Khan, a suburban Baltimore high school graduate, told a new judge on his case Tuesday, according to a transcript released by the Pentagon.

“I call it ‘cluster covfefe,’ ” the Pakistani citizen added, using a made-up word or typo that President Donald Trump tweeted a year ago, in a midnight commentary about negative press coverage.

Khan, 38, a Pakistani former legal U.S. resident is awaiting sentencing next year on charges of conspiring with al-Qaida, murder, attempted murder and spying, under a plea agreement that permits his release from the prison in 13 years. He was held and tortured for more than three years in the CIA’s secret prison network, according to his lawyers and the Senate intelligence committee’s declassified version of the so-called Torture Report.

Without explaining further, he told the judge that his lawyers and prosecutors weren’t getting along. “I hear a lot of ominous language from prosecutors all the time, so I don’t know where I am standing,” he said, adding that he preferred a more “amicable milieu.”

Army Col. Douglas K. Watkins in a Pentagon handout photo.

One issue had been the timing of his sentencing, now set for July 1, 2019. As part of the 2012 plea, he agreed to become a government witness, something his military jury might view favorably in deciding his sentence. But no war crimes case has come to trial that required his testimony, so his sentencing hearing has been has twice postponed by agreement of both sides.

“Majid just wants to move forward and maximize his cooperation with as little disruption as possible,” said defense attorney Wells Dixon, who represents Khan pro bono. “He may get frustrated from time to time, but that’s only human. He’s done remarkably well over the last six years. We’re very proud of him.”

Another issue appears to be a churn of lawyers on the case. For Tuesday’s 2-hour, 10-minute hearing, there was a different judge, different prosecution team and different military defense attorney from his last appearance in September 2016. Khan’s long-serving military defense attorney, Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, has retired from service and was replaced by Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jared Hernandez, who is due to leave the case in September.

Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, military lawyer for Majid Khan, talks to reporters on Feb. 29, 2012. From left, Katya Jestin and Wells Dixon, two other lawyers on Khan’s team. Jackson has since retired from the military and Khan wants him brought back on the case as a civilian, Pentagon paid attorney. PETTY OFFICER KILHO PARK U.S. NAVY

Khan, who Hernandez described in court as “Guantanamo’s only high-value cooperator,” wants the Pentagon to hire Jackson as a civilian defense lawyer for the case.

Khan’s new military judge, Army Col. Douglas Watkins, last year handled the sentencing hearing of another al-Qaida foot soldier turned Guantánamo informant, former low-value detainee Ahmed al Darbi, a Saudi who was sent home to serve his sentence. For Tuesday’s hearing, Khan’s legal team questioned Watkins about possible conflicts, something that typically happens when a new judge appears at the war court.

“Not at all,” Watkins replied to a question of whether the CIA influences his decision making or controls his court. He said he was aware that Khan been held by the CIA and was aware of allegations of torture by lawyers but had never read the Senate intelligence committee’s torture report.

At one point, Dixon asked, “Has your honor ever been involved in a case, in any fashion, where the accused was beaten or sleep deprived or stripped naked, waterboarded, or sexually assaulted?” — a clear reference to abuses that Khan’s lawyers say their client suffered.

“Not that I’m aware of,” the judge replied.

Watkins declined to offer an opinion of whether those things individually or in combination constituted torture.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg