Military Commissions Resume At Guantanamo
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to take you now to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There's a war court meeting today for the first time under the new Trump administration. It's one more of many attempts to bring the five most high-profile detainees to trial, men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks. But the whole thing's been stuck for years in pretrial motions and legal fights over evidence. NPR's David Welna is outside the courtroom in Guantanamo, and he joins us now on the line. Hi, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: This has been going on for five years. So what does the new administration mean for this process?
WELNA: Well, you know, Trump hasn't had much to say about this trial. But it really has showcased the perils of trying to put a group of men on trial for mass murder with this so-called military commission, which has been revamped three times since the attacks they're accused of plotting. Mark Martins, he's the brigadier general, who's the chief prosecutor, is now proposing that a jury, which would be made up entirely of military officers, be chosen by March of next year.
And for that to happen, the defense lawyers would have to get a lot more of the evidence that they've been seeking. Here's a bit of what Martins had to say about that this week.
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MARK MARTINS: We're now going to provide the defense everything we can. We're going to make it as accessible as we can to the accused. But quite frankly, we can't declassify everything that's in government vaults for a trial of this kind. We're making sure it's fair.
WELNA: You know, one of the things that's in government vaults is a still-secret 6,000-page report prepared by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Republican who's now in charge of that panel wants all the copies of it returned, which were sent by Democrats to federal agencies when they controlled the committee. The CIA's already destroyed its copy. But the judge in this case has ordered the Pentagon to hang on to its copies because the lawyers defending these five men say that full report likely has a lot more in it that could help their clients than the 500-page summary of it that was made public a couple of years ago.
MARTIN: So that report is about the CIA's controversial detention and interrogation of these five 9/11 defendants and other people. Do you think the defense team will actually be able to use it?
WELNA: Well, I doubt it. Chief Prosecutor Martin says there's no need, since he'll provide the documents it was based on that he thinks are relevant to the case. The defense lawyers say they simply can't trust him to do that. And if they can't see that full report, they won't know what they don't know. One of those lawyers is Jay Connell.
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JAY CONNELL: It's absolutely true that we can't have a complete picture of what information exists. We know that there are something like 6.2 million responsive documents. And we know that the government has turned over to us approximately, including previous substitutions, about 300 pages of information.
WELNA: Connell says with that kind of foot dragging, it's completely unrealistic for the prosecution to aim to put together a jury and get a trial going early next year. He and others think that can't happen for at least another several years.
MARTIN: So what does that mean? Is there anything that can be done to speed the whole thing up?
WELNA: Well, defense lawyers say a big help would be to add another death penalty expert lawyer to each of the five defense teams. They already each have one, as required by law. But one of those experts broke her arm over the weekend and was unable to travel here to attend this court session. And that could cause problems later on if her client claims he was not adequately represented. So having a backup would avoid such problems and possible delays.
The head of the defense team has requested more of these death penalty lawyers, but they cost the government about half a million dollars each a year. And especially with Trump's new hiring freeze, it's not likely they'll get them.
MARTIN: NPR's David Welna, reporting from outside a courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. David, thanks so much.
WELNA: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.