Guantanamo

Defense lawyers’ moldy offices don’t delay start of 9/11 hearing

From left, Mustafa al Hawsawi, Ammar al Baluchi, Ramzi bin al Shibh, Walid bin Attash and Khalid Sheik Mohammed pray at their Guantánamo war court arraignment on May 5, 2012. This sketch was reviewed and approved for release by a U.S. military security official.
From left, Mustafa al Hawsawi, Ammar al Baluchi, Ramzi bin al Shibh, Walid bin Attash and Khalid Sheik Mohammed pray at their Guantánamo war court arraignment on May 5, 2012. This sketch was reviewed and approved for release by a U.S. military security official.

A defense attorney in the Sept. 11 trial appeared in court in shirt sleeves topped by a Harry Potter tie Monday as the Marine Corps judge plunged forward with a modified pretrial hearing following the discovery of mold in top-secret legal offices.

“My two suits are covered in mold,” said William Montross, a lawyer for alleged Sept. 11 plot deputy Walid bin Attash. He said the red and yellow diagonal stripe pattern necktie had “miraculously” been spared the mold his team discovered on arrival Saturday caking keyboards, court filings, furniture, carpets and clothing.

The new case judge, Marine Col. Keith Parrella, said he took no disrespect from the casual attire. He blamed a broken air conditioner inside the top-secret trailer where six death-penalty defense teams share a common ventilation unit — and ordered the U.S. government to mitigate the mold and make sure no further similar episodes occur.

Defense lawyers told the judge that two unnamed team members had gone to the base emergency room with breathing problems perhaps associated with the mold. Another had developed rashes on his or her arms after 40 minutes inside the trailer, and a defense lawyer with asthma was instructed to stay away.

Parrella pushed off legal motions to be argued by Bin Attash’s lawyers until later in the week, then turned to a request from attorneys for the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, to call CIA Director Gina Haspel as a witness in their bid to get the case dismissed.

Haspel, they argue, contaminated the case by public statements at her confirmation hearing and is ultimately responsible for what classified information defense lawyers get to see.

Prosecutor Bob Swann replied that that nobody on his team had ever met Haspel, and that the spy agency that held the accused terrorists for up to four years in secret overseas prisons doesn’t decide what evidence the defense teams get. The prosecution does, Swann said.

At issue is the CIA’s role in the classification of documents related to the so-called black site program where Haspel worked and where the spy agency waterboarded and otherwise abused Mohammed, out of reach of attorneys and the International Red Cross. Prosecutors decide what the defense lawyers need and, if the CIA doesn’t agree to declassify certain material, the prosecution asks the judge to permit redactions and summaries of evidence the defense attorneys can’t see.

Mohammed defense attorney Rita Radostitz told the judge that the U.S. tortured the alleged al-Qaida operations chief “for three and-a-half years and there’s a big incentive to hide that torture.”

The makeshift war court compound called Camp Justice has been beleaguered by work challenges for years. At one point, a building housing the judges’ chambers was closed for workers to manage asbestos that was exposed during a renovation. Lead Bin Attash lawyer Cheryl Bormann, who came to court in an abaya that had been cleansed of mold overnight, announced that her unclassified office was smeared in rat feces.

She said Monday that workers cleaning up the mess moved a filing cabinet, shaking loose some ceiling tiles and exposed asbetos again. That building, housing a former air-traffic control tower, is also used by the Pentagon to hold parole-style hearings for uncharged, indefinite detainees at Guantánamo.

The chief defense counsel for a time forbade lawyers from sleeping in the Camp Justice trailer park until contract laborers rigged up blowers to mitigate a discovery of formaldehyde. Hearings have been halted or delayed during downpours because pounding rain on the maximum-security courtroom makes it impossible to hear.

But this week’s setback was the first for Parrella, who was holding only his second Sept. 11 pretrial session after taking the case from the original judge, who retired. At Parrella’s first appearance, he shortened what was supposed to be a full-week session because a hurricane headed to the Eastern Seaboard threatened to leave the war court staff stranded at Guantánamo due to cancellation of the Pentagon’s air charter.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg
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