GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — An attempt to get the Sept. 11 terror case moving again came to an abrupt end Monday as at least two of five defendants identified a new courtroom interpreter as someone they encountered while held in secret CIA custody before being taken to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for a long-stalled military trial.
A hearing in the high-security courtroom had just begun when defendant Ramzi Binalshibh told the judge that he recognized the male interpreter sitting next to him at the defense table from his time in the so-called "black sites" overseas, where prisoners were subjected to treatment widely regarded as torture.
"I cannot trust him because he was working at the black site with the CIA and we know him from there," said Binalshibh, a 42-year-old from Yemen who was captured in Pakistan in 2002, speaking in English.
Interpreters are typically government contractors with security clearances. Prosecutors appeared caught off guard by Binalshibh's allegation and said they would look into it.
At least one other defendant said he recognized the interpreter, but there was no immediate way to confirm it. The mere possibility led the defense to suggest he could have been planted by the government as part of broader effort to monitor their activities.
Later, James Harrington, the lead civilian attorney for Binalshibh, said four of the five defendants are "adamant" in their belief that the interpreter worked at the black site, and that the fifth is unsure.
Now, they are trying to confirm the man's background and determine how he could have gotten the position without the apparent knowledge of the prosecution.
"If it was something deliberate, it would have to have been done by some sort of security agency. If it was coincidence or accident then it should have been disclosed," he said. "This is something that has to be explored."
The interpreter recently began working for the Binalshibh team, replacing one who was forced to resign because he lost his security clearance after being questioned by the FBI, in an investigation whose nature and scope has not been publicly disclosed.
Fears that the government is monitoring the defense have repeatedly come up in the case, prompted by incidents such as the discovery of listening devices disguised as smoke detectors in attorney-client meeting rooms. They emerged again last April when Harrington revealed that members of his support staff had been questioned by the FBI.
Defense attorney Cheryl Borman, who represents Walid bin Attash, said her client was "visibly shaken," by the presence in the courtroom of someone who "participated in his illegal torture."
The attorney said an investigation ordered by the judge should be carried out not by the prosecution but by a Department of Justice special review team already looking into the FBI questioning of support staff on the Binalshibh defense team.
"If this is part of the pattern of infiltration by government agencies into the defense teams, then the right people to be addressing this issue are not in the courtroom," said Bormann, a Chicago civilian lawyer who specializes in death penalty cases and wears a floor-length black garb known as an abaya in court to avoid offending the sensibilities of her Muslim client.
The judge directed both sides to look further into the issue and said court would reconvene Wednesday. It brought a sudden end to a hearing that was supposed to focus on resolving questions about the FBI investigation and consider removing Binalshibh as a defendant so the proceedings could resume for the other defendants.
All five men face charges that include terrorism, hijacking and nearly 3,000 counts of murder for their alleged roles planning and providing logistical support to the Sept. 11, terrorist attack. The defendants, including self-proclaimed mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, could get the death penalty in proceedings that have been plagued with problems from the start.
The men were all held for several years by the CIA, subjected to the harsh interrogations as part of the government's Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program. They were taken to Guantanamo in 2006. Their trials were delayed by legal issues, followed by a debate over whether to prosecute them in a U.S. civilian court or at the base in Cuba.
They were arraigned in May 2012 in a hearing that stretched for 13 hours as the men refused to use the courtroom translation system or respond to the judge. Further delays arose because of weather and other logistical issues and a debate over rules for handling classified evidence, among other things.
More recently, the case has bogged down with questions about Binalshibh's mental capacity to stand trial following repeated outbursts in court over what he said were government efforts to disturb his sleep, the use of female guards to move prisoners, and the questioning of defense team staff by the FBI, an investigation whose scope and nature has not been publicly disclosed.
The pace has frustrated people like Kevin Ryan, a retired officer with the Port Authority of New York Police Department who was at the World Trade Center after the attack and was witnessing this week's hearing.
"I want the defendants to be treated fairly but I also want to see some movement," said Ryan, who now lives in Cape Coral, Florida. "This is like a constant tearing open of old wounds."
The chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, told the court that the government had looked into the FBI questioning of support staff and "can assure there is no attempt to have someone be put into the defense teams" to monitor them.
Regarding the prisoners' new allegation about the interpreter, he said officials would need more time to "collect the facts and understand what the issue is."
Bormann was skeptical, calling the identification of the interpreter the "biggest coincidence ever," if confirmed. "It just strikes me that there is a huge issue here."