GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL STATION, Cuba— A uniformed U.S. military officer approaches a man accused of contributing to an attack that killed thousands, brought America to its knees, and paved the way for the world's greatest military power to enter into two protracted wars. They shake hands, smile at one another, and seem to engage in innocuous conversation about the day's events.
Such is the reality in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four coconspirators are fighting for their lives in an unprecedented military commission that will rule on their ultimate fate. Each of the men has been assigned military officers to make their case against the U.S. government, represented by a highly-decorated one-star general, and a team of military and Department of Justice legal minds.
Family members of Sept. 11 victims told reporters on Friday that they had little reaction upon seeing the five men that contributed to their loved ones' deaths. "I have no emotion for them, they're not worth it," said Nancy Niedermeyer, who wore her American Airlines flight attendant uniform as a symbol of solidarity for colleagues who died on that day in 2001.
Niedermeyer, along with her 14-year-old son A.J., and other fellow visitors who watched the week's proceedings thanked the judge for his perceived patience, and the prosecuting attorneys for their efforts to provide justice. She is not the only observer who did not mention the defense attorneys.
The uniformed Americans representing the accused feel they must exchange intimate details with these five accused terrorists to gain their trust, and ultimately fight for their lives. That includes occasionally shaking hands and offering friendly banter.
Army Capt. Jason Wright is among the team of lawyers defending Mohammed, a Pakistani man known under dozens of aliases and considered the "principal architect" of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the 9/11 Commission Report.
"He's very religious, very conservative, acutely intelligent. He has five sons, three daughters, he loves his family. He travelled a great deal. He's cultured. He has a degree in mechanical engineering. He's very gracious," says Wright.
The two discuss foreign policy, the history of the United States and the Middle East, Palestine, and the Koran. They also discuss human rights law, the laws of war, and the differences between conventional international law and how Muslims' Sharia law governs across borders.
"We do talk about a great many things during our meetings, and it's just part of the natural cycle where we have to build a relationship together of trust," Wright says.
Much of this process involves putting personal beliefs aside. Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz represents Mustafa al-Hawsawi for this trial, also a suspected al Qaeda member accused of helping train Sept. 11 hijackers, and contributing to other high-profile attacks on U.S. facilities.
"I do know him in a way other people don't," Ruiz says. "Most people have a caricature of what this man is like. I have a real sense of what this man is like."
Hawsawi now gives Ruiz the granola bars with chocolate chips detainees are issued for Ruiz to give to his children. The relationship has taught the attorney many things he did not know about Islam, such as the proper handling of holy books including the Koran, as well as the Bible.
"In many ways, he is a very common and ordinary person," Ruiz says. "Ultimately, it gets to a point where one day I'm going to be his voice, so I have to try and understand him as well as I possibly can."
"In order to do that, it requires an incredible learning curve and a remarkable journey," he adds.
All officers swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which these servicemen say helps them put the effort forth to try to save men like Mohammed or al Hawsawi, who could be seen as among the victims of these circumstances.
"Not only are we trying to ensure there is a fair trial, and that the presumption of innocence remains inviolate, we're also trying to seek some measure of accountability for what happened to these men, for what our government did, to Mr. Mohammed in particular," says Wright. "To try to put on a mitigation case, to tell his life story, his life history that includes three and a half years of torture."
"It pains me as an American, before I was even asked to join the Office of the Chief Defense Counsel, it pains me that my government thought it was appropriate to torture for my freedoms," he says.
Everyone is entitled to have a defense, Wright adds.
"The remarkable thing is I wear this uniform, and I get to be as outspoken as I need to be on issues that affect our government, on issues that affect decision-making in this place," says Ruiz. "I think that's remarkable. I think that should be celebrated."
This makes it easier to become an advocate for his client in court, he says. Each component—defense, prosecution, or and judge—should work against one another to produce a better result, he says.
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