GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — A military judge allowed the Sept. 11 war crimes case to proceed Wednesday over objections from defense lawyers alarmed at the discovery a courtroom interpreter previously worked at a CIA "black site" where detainees were subjected to brutal interrogation.
Army Col. James Pohl turned back requests to halt pretrial proceedings at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay while both defense lawyers and prosecutors try to determine how someone with such a background ended up in the high-profile case of five men charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
Defendant Ramzi Binalshibh brought a hearing to a halt Monday when he told the judge that he recognized the interpreter, seated next to him in court for the first time, from a secret CIA prison where he was brutally interrogated before being moved to Guantanamo in September 2006. Three other defendants identified the man as well.
The interpreter was quickly replaced and has not returned to court.
The defense is expected to file a flurry of motions in the coming days and weeks seeking more information about the man and trying to determine if his placement on the Binalshibh team was more than coincidence. They also want to know if there are any others with links to the CIA or other intelligence agencies among their translators and support staff.
"We cannot go forward in any way until we figure out what is going on here," said David Nevin, civilian attorney for lead defendant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. "This is not just a simple matter of saying he's gone, problem over, because it is much, much more complicated than that."
Pohl said it was too soon to know if the situation warranted any kind of hold on the proceedings.
The Pentagon confirmed the interpreter had worked as a CIA linguist, but released no details. The chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, said Wednesday that the man was not working for any government agency while working for the defense in the Sept. 11 case, an assignment he began in August.
"The presence of a former CIA linguist on one of the defense teams in no way resulted from any action by any agency of the executive branch to gather any information regarding defense activities from any of the defense teams," Martins said in court, repeating the statement twice.
Prosecutors have asserted it was up to the defense to vet the interpreter. It's not known if the man is bound by a non-disclosure agreement, but James Harrington, a civilian lawyer for Binalshibh, said the information on the interpreter's previous work should have come out when he was interviewed for the post.
"We vetted him in terms of had he answered truthfully to us, we would have known and he would not have been part of our case," Harrington said.
Lawyers for the five men facing trial by military commission on charges that include murder and terrorism have all long accused the government of monitoring their activities and communications and interfering with their efforts to build an attorney-client relationship with men who were held for several years each in secret custody and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, widely considered torture.
The interpreter who worked for the CIA joined the Binalshibh team to replace one who had to resign after he was questioned by the FBI along other defense team support staff. The nature of that investigation has not been publicly disclosed, but it has prompted a formal inquiry into whether his attorney, James Harrington, has a conflict of interest and can no longer represent Binalshibh.
That inquiry began more than six months ago, and prosecutors and the judge indicated in court this week that it has not been resolved.
The judge considered severing Binalshibh as a defendant so the case against the others could move forward, but he put off a decision at the urging of prosecutors, who want all the men tried together on charges that could bring the death penalty for a conviction.
Pohl agreed to take up on Thursday a series of motions concerning Mustafa al-Hawsawi, the one defendant who has said he was not sure if he recognized the interpreter from a black site.