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Obama, Bush declared Sept. 11 defendants guilty, lawyers say

October 19, 2012|By Richard A. Serrano
  • A restricted area sign is posted in front of a war crimes courtroom at Camp Justice at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
A restricted area sign is posted in front of a war crimes courtroom at Camp… (Michelle Shepard / Pool )

FT. MEADE, Md. -- Top officials in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, including the two presidents themselves, repeatedly and publicly pronounced a group of senior Al Qaeda leaders guilty in the Sept. 11 conspiracy and created an “unlawful command influence” that pressured the U.S. military to bring capital murder charges against them in a military commission trial, defense lawyers said Friday.

The lawyers, speaking at a pretrial hearing at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, asserted that the Washington officials unfairly prejudged their clients. They asked the military judge to let them question political and military leaders and conduct other research to learn how deeply they were involved in creating the criminal case and whether it directly pressured the military to seek the death penalty for the five defendants.

“We want to take a look at these individuals and their actions,” said Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, who is representing Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi, an alleged Al Qaeda financier. “Unlawful influence in this case does exist. It is more than a mere allegation. We need to air out these very serious issues.’’

He also invoked the court-martial of Army Lt. William Calley, convicted in 1968 in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and cited court rulings in that case in which military officials were found to be under pressure to bring him to trial.

Army Maj. Robert McGovern, one of the Sept. 11 prosecutors, said “the government is trying to be responsible and responsive to these requests. We are prepared to meet our obligations.”

But he said the defense has not established a “theory of relevance” for how these allegations play into the underlying charges of conspiracy, murder and terrorism against the defendants, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

“Their request is overly broad,” McGovern said of the defense attempts to investigate officials in the White House and Pentagon. “We do agree these statements were made by the president and the secretary of Defense. There are these statements out there. But this request is extremely broad, wildly broad. They want the government to basically look inside every government filing cabinet.”

The prosecutor added, “They want information like the president of the United States emailing someone about the referral [of charges] in this case. … We don’t want this to become a big fishing expedition.”

Army Col. James L. Pohl, the judge in this first and only criminal case to arise out of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington, did not issue an immediate ruling and indicated he first will study the issue.

But the judge did note that “in big cases” like this, defense lawyers have pursued allegations of unwarranted command pressure.

Defense lawyers, in their legal papers, cited a series of instances in which senior Washington officials publicly “convicted” the defendants in news conferences, press releases and Capitol Hill testimony.

The Guantanamo Bay hearings are being telecast via a secure video link from Cuba to Ft. Meade.

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

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