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Gitmo Detainees Charged With 9/11 Crimes to Be Tried in Special Courts

February 14, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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Military commission trials for the six Guantanamo Bay detainees charged for their involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks will be held in specially designed courtrooms known as Camp Justice. Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann outlines the legal processes for the trials.
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JIM LEHRER: Next, the 9/11 trials. Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: The six Guantanamo detainees now set to face trial by military commission all face charges announced on Monday for their direct involvement in planning the September 11th terrorist attacks.

They include: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks; Waleed bin Attash, alleged to have selected and trained two of the hijackers; Ramzi Binalshibh; Ali Abdul al-Aziz Ali; and Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, each charged with coordinating and financing and training for the attacks; and Mohammed al-Qahtani, the so-called 20th hijacker, who was barred entry to the U.S. a month before 9/11.

If convicted, each could face the death penalty.

The legal process was outlined by an act of Congress in 2006. The trials themselves will take place in a specially designed set of courtrooms known as Camp Justice on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo.

Here to walk us through that process is Brigadier General Thomas Hartmann, the legal adviser to the convening authority for the Office of Military Commissions at the Department of Defense.

General, welcome.

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN, Legal Adviser, U.S. Military Tribunal System: Good evening.

RAY SUAREZ: How will these trials differ from a conventional criminal trial in the United States? Will the defendants be able to examine the evidence against them and directly confront their accusers?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: Yes, absolutely. Every piece of evidence that goes before the jury, the finder of fact, will be subject to their review, cross-examination, challenge, objection, just like you would see in an American court or a military court martial. So they have those full rights in the courtroom.

Disclosing origins of evidence

Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann
U.S. Military Tribunal System
We're a country that is governed by the rule of law and not by the rule of men, and we will follow the rule of law in these proceedings. It's not effective to be able to try these cases in the press or anywhere else.

RAY SUAREZ: One aspect that's gotten a lot of attention and is likely to come up in the trial is the source of that information. There's a theory in legal circles, "fruit of a poisoned tree." If information is introduced in court that was obtained by torture, could that end up slowing or even preventing these trials from moving forward?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: The trials will be governed by the rules of evidence and the rules of procedures that Congress has put in place under the Military Commission Act that you mentioned. And we will leave it up to the trial counsel and the defense counsel and the judge to make the determinations of what's admissible in the court.

We're a country that is governed by the rule of law and not by the rule of men, and we will follow the rule of law in these proceedings. It's not effective to be able to try these cases in the press or anywhere else. We'll decide them in the courtroom on Guantanamo.

RAY SUAREZ: So at this point, it's not clear exactly how evidence that may have been obtained by physical coercion will be treated when we're actually at trial?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: All the evidentiary decisions will be made by the trial counsel and the defense counsel duking it out in the courtroom, and the judge will make that final decision.

RAY SUAREZ: Who's going to be sitting in judgment on these defendants?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: Military judges. Each of the judge advocate generals, the uniformed judge advocate generals, have nominated people, and the chief judge will appoint a particular judge to a case, but there are 12 sitting judges who are available to take the trials. They're all experienced military judges; they're all uniform; they've got decades of experience.

Concerns over confidentiality

Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann
U.S. Military Tribunal System
We're getting the resources we need from the judge advocates general from the uniformed services, and we continue to get resources from them as the process expands and more trials are brought, more charges are sworn.

RAY SUAREZ: As this process is approached, various defense counsel have expressed concerns, misgivings about whether they're going to be able to examine all the evidence that's being brought to bear against their clients or whether they'll be roadblocks, impediments where people will say, "Sorry, you just don't have the clearance to see this stuff."

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: Well, they will -- if they need discovery, they have the rights to discovery, reasonable and material evidence, as it's set forth in the manual for military commissions, very similar to the manual for military court martial.

And they will have the right to seek discovery. The judge will rule if there are any challenges on that discovery, and it will proceed very much like a normal trial.

RAY SUAREZ: You use the word "reasonable." Who decides what's reasonable?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: The reasonable is an objective standard. And ordinarily in discovery the two trial counsel, the trial counsel and the defense counsel, try to reach a conclusion. And if they cannot, the judge makes the decision of what's reasonable.

RAY SUAREZ: Have members of the military legal profession raised any concerns about their ability to try this case? Has it been hard to fill all the slots you need to move forward because of misgivings in the uniformed ranks about this process?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: I don't think so. The uniformed ranks are stretched thinly because of the global war on terror and trying to deal with all that.

But we're getting the resources we need from the judge advocates general from the uniformed services, and we continue to get resources from them as the process expands and more trials are brought, more charges are sworn.

Upholding defendants' rights

Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann
U.S. Military Tribunal System
The burden of proof is on the government, presumption of innocence. The presumption of innocence and the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt did not even exist at Nuremberg.

RAY SUAREZ: One of the prominent members of the team, Colonel Steven David, said of the process, when reporters were asking him how to proceed, "You're asking me to tell you how we're going to get to a place we've never been with a map I don't have."

He seemed to be a little unsure about how all this is going to work once it really gets going.

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: Well, in the defense community, they have today, as we speak, nine uniformed counsel, and they'll get another one within one day. They have four civilian counsel, and they have three more military counsel in the hopper on the way through the process.

One will come in April, and two more will come in May. And at this point, there are only 12 accused, the six that were accused the other day, and then you had six before that. So there are 12 people. That's a good ratio of support.

The defense also has analysts, and they will get more analysts. They have interpreters, and they have computer resources. They have places to review classified information. So we're resourcing them very well.

RAY SUAREZ: Do these defendants, because of the highly charged nature of this case, worldwide audience, the conflict about how exactly to proceed, can they go into court and say, "I want my own legal team, and I don't want to be tried with these guys because of what we're all being charged with"?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: The chief prosecutor has recommended that these cases, the ones I announced on Monday, be charged jointly and be tried jointly. That decision still needs to be made by Judge Crawford, the convening authority. And even if she should decide to send them to trial jointly, they can challenge that in the courtroom.

And the judge can say, "I'm going to sever these." You're either joint or severed, so the judge can decide if he wants to sever them.

And each of them has the right to a detailed military counsel effective on the swearing of the charges on Monday, so that right has kicked in. They haven't all received one yet.

But they can also get civilian counsel of their own choosing at their own expense. And Hamdan is one of the cases that was tried last week in connection with motions and discovery, and Hamdan had sitting at his defense table at Guantanamo Bay five defense counsel, one military defense counsel, one Department of Defense civilian, two members of a distinguished law firm in the United States, and one professor from Emory University.

And Hamdan on his appeal to the Supreme Court had seven counsel, all of them civilians. So we think that they're well-represented, the resources are there, and the resources will continue to be there.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how important is that? Are you very conscious in this process, as we begin it, that the world is watching this, and to the degree that it deviates from the kind of trial someone would be able to demand on United States soil, that there may be questions around the world about how this works?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: Very conscious of it. If you study the rights, the rights are amazing that are made available to these accused, the right to remain silent, the right to have -- the right to see all the evidence that goes to the finder of fact, the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard.

The burden of proof is on the government, presumption of innocence. The presumption of innocence and the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt did not even exist at Nuremberg. They get to call witnesses. They get to cross-examine witnesses. They get to call their own witnesses.

If they are found guilty, they get an automatic right of appeal to the Court of Military Commission Review. That doesn't exist anywhere but in our system that they get an automatic right of appeal. So these rights are tremendous.

We think that they equate very closely to the rights we make available to our own soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in the uniformed services. And I think many, many people out there watching will think that they are a national treasure, our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and to provide the same thing is a reflection of the American standard of justice.

Selection of jury members

Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann
U.S. Military Tribunal System
We expect that you will see arraignments probably sometime in the spring, and that's when the accused is read the charges, announces his rights to counsel, what he wants for counsel, and how he enters a plea.

RAY SUAREZ: But you've also announced your intention to seek the death penalty in these cases. Does that add a burden for the prosecution that may be difficult to carry, given the rules under which this is moving forward?

If there are any circumstances where people can't see the sources of evidence, where they can't find out where information being introduced against them came out, wouldn't that be mitigation if they appeal their death penalty?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: Well, let me take you way back. The prosecutors have recommended that it go forward as a capital case. Judge Crawford, the convening authority, still needs to make that decision as to whether that will be a capital charge.

And even then, even then a jury of at least 12 members, at least 12 members must unanimously agree on the findings and the sentence. And, as I mentioned, they will have access to the discovery and to the extent that they don't think they're getting the right discovery, they will bring that to the attention of the judge, and the judge will fix that within the rule of law.

RAY SUAREZ: And the 12 members are all active-duty military?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: The 12 members -- it's at least 12 members. It could be more. But if it's more, it's still unanimous. It has to be a unanimous decision.

They're military personnel chosen based upon their age, experience, judicial temperament, and factors of that sort, in terms of sitting in the trial. It's virtually identical to the process we use in a military court martial practice.

RAY SUAREZ: And very quickly before we go, how soon might we see the first opening arguments?

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: Opening arguments, I can't predict. We expect that you will see arraignments probably sometime in the spring, and that's when the accused is read the charges, announces his rights to counsel, what he wants for counsel, and how he enters a plea.

After that, the case will proceed through discovery, motions, and that will take some time, and then you'll see opening statements after that.

RAY SUAREZ: General Hartmann, thanks for joining us.

BRIG. GEN. THOMAS HARTMANN: Thank you.