About 250 kids and kin of men and women killed on 9/11 vied for
six courtroom seats. Around the same number of journalists sought to work at
Guantanamo this weekend. Senior human rights lawyers swept aside staff
attorneys and interns for a three-night stay in a six-bunk tent.
Competition has been fierce to secure a weekend spot at Camp Justice, Guantanamo's crude war court compound in southeast Cuba where Pentagon prosecutors will once again charge confessed mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four co-defendants with orchestrating the terror attacks by hijacked passenger aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's the Nuremberg of our times," said Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, accounting for the crush of press applications to report from Guantanamo on Saturday when the one-day arraignment hearing restarts the clock on the death penalty trial by military commissions.
Reporters emailed from as far away as Australia and Pakistan, willing to cross the globe at short notice to join the press flight from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., to the U.S.-controlled corner of Cuba.
About a dozen German newspapers and broadcasters sought seats, probably because Yemeni defendant Ramzi bin al Shibh, 40, is accused of organizing the cell of hijackers from Hamburg, where he also allegedly helped them apply for Florida flight schools. Only Der Spiegel among the Germans got one of the 60 reporter beds in tent city.
Although nearly 3,000 people were killed in the terror attacks, only about 250 of their survivors submitted their names for a Defense Department lottery for seats set aside for "victim family members" -- spouses, siblings, grandparents, parents or children of those killed.
Those chosen include two women who lost their husbands on 9/11, a man who lost his wife, and two sisters who lost their two brothers inside the World Trade Center that day, said Karen Loftus, the Pentagon's coordinator for Sept. 11 victims.
All are from the East Coast and will decide, at Guantanamo, whether to tell their stories and make their names public.
Interest in watching the proceedings has been building, said Loftus, who anticipates the lottery pool to expand for any actual trial. Saturday's hearing follows years of legal controversies surrounding the court, which was initially closed by the Supreme Court in the Bush years, then twice reformed, most recently by President Barack Obama and Congress.
"People need to see that it's really going to happen," Loftus said Wednesday. "The Supreme Court has weighed in, Congress has weighed in, both presidents have weighed in. And this is happening."
All four New York City newspapers, site of Ground Zero, got seats as well -- The Post, The Daily News, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, as well as major television news networks from FOX and CNN to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.
First-time journalists include Terry McDermott, author of The Hunt for KSM, just released, and former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani, who was a colleague of murdered Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl and his wife were staying in Nomani's rented home in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002 before his kidnapping and beheading, which Mohammed boasted at Guantanamo he did "with my blessed hand."
Nomani will be reporting for Washingtonian magazine. McDermott's going to file dispatches for Newsweek's online blog, The Daily Beast.
McDermott's co-author, Josh Meyer, secured a slot as an observer on behalf of The Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, where he now works. The last time he was there, he reported on the Bush-era efforts to prosecute Mohammed for The Los Angeles Times.
The observers will also include for the first time the Navy's senior lawyer on 9/11 -- retired Rear Adm. Donald Guter, who is being sent by the legal group Human Rights First to observe. Guter, who was at work and felt Flight 77 crash into the Pentagon that day, is no fan of the military commissions system.
"I think it should be in federal courts," said Guter, calling the U.S. civilian system "the gold standard" of criminal justice.
Even the Obama administration's reformed war court system, he says, is too burdened by questions of legal jurisdiction and hearsay exceptions to be credible in many human rights and international law circles.
Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the Pentagon's chief prosecutor, has urged critics to give the court a chance. "If observers will withhold judgment for a time," he told a gathering at Harvard Law School last month, "the system they see will prove itself deserving of public confidence."
But, Guter said in an interview this week, the alleged 9/11 perpetrators don't deserve the dignity of a military commission.
"They're thugs, not soldiers," he said. "Put them through the federal system with all the real miscreants there. We're giving them a status as real warriors by giving them commissions."
Attorney General Eric Holder wanted to hold the trials in New York City, but Congress closed off any possibility of federal trials through legislation.
Other lawyers taking up observer seats offered by the Office of Military Commissions include Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has funded some of the 9/11 defense work; former New York prosecutor and Iran-Contra investigator Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch; Amnesty International's Tom Parker and Judicial Watch's Lisette Garcia.
With only sporadic interest in earlier Obama-era proceedings, the 9/11 hearing puts a renewed spotlight on the expeditionary legal compound the Bush administration fast-tracked in 2008 for $12 million by requisitioning supplies from existing Defense Department inventories.
It's built atop an abandoned airstrip on a remote corner of the base overlooking Guantanamo Bay.
Its centerpiece is a pre-fab maximum-security, state-of-the-art courtroom built inside a building that looks like a warehouse, and is surrounded by fencing topped with barbed wire and displaying signs that forbid photography. It was brought in by barge in pieces and can be dismantled and taken away.
Reporters and observers are put up in nearby tents that look like Quonset huts, with drinking water chilled in a $32,000 U.S. Air Force refrigeration container meant to ship the dead home from war. Lawyers get a nearby trailer park while senior court staff and the 9/11 victims get guest officers quarters.
The compound has been sparsely used during the Obama administration, with the tent city only filled to capacity as emergency transition housing for troops and journalists bound for Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
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