The Strange, Strange Spectacle of the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Trial

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Nov. 20 2012 5:30 AM

Camp Justice

Scenes from the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial.

This is an excerpt of "Camp Justice," a Kindle Single published this week.

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Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is praying. He has pulled his chair out from the long table and spread a prayer rug out before it. He stands on the rug in gray socks, facing the corner of Courtroom II. He bows at the waist, then the knees. He settles down on his haunches. His forehead kisses the rug. It is said that he has a mark on his forehead, from all the praying. He stands, waves his hands beside his ears, palms forward. He looks over his left shoulder to one of his co-accused, Ramzi bin al-Shibh. Ramzi follows.

KSM is 47 years old. He looks older. He has grown his beard long, brushed it out, and dyed it red. With his dark eyes, this gives him the appearance of a small red panda. He is wearing a white turban and a baggy white shalwar kameez. On top he wears a camouflage vest, the subject of some controversy. One of his attorneys said the vest is like the ones he wore as he “distinguished himself on the battlefield” in Afghanistan and Bosnia. The clothes seem rather new. Sixteen soldiers are formed in three rows to keep watch over the lunchtime prayer. They are keeping what you might call a respectful distance. KSM bows. He bows again. Ramzi follows.

The young public affairs officer sitting next to me in the gallery has been chatting with another soldier about life at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. There are boat trips, drive-in movies, Pilates. The officer’s current detail guarding the detention camps is not so bad, she tells the other soldier—there is lots of downtime for hanging out and playing cards. She turns to me and says: “They’re very careful not to have people in there during prayer times. So we don’t disturb ‘em.”

KSM turns and faces us. Despite the three panes of soundproof Plexiglas between us, the mutual awareness of presence is suggestive of what it might be like to be in the same room. His face is dark. From 30 feet away the heavy brows and the folds around the mouth combine into a dark supercontinent. I lower my notebook and make like I am looking at nothing in particular, as though we were on the subway. Instead of the hatred I am supposed to feel, I feel afraid.

* * *

On an earlier trip to this strange island, one Victim Family Member told me: “I was anticipating seeing these monsters that murdered my child. … I wanted to see them, look them in the eye.”

That is also why I came. I wanted to see “monsters,” men who are known by all to be much worse than guilty. What does “fair” mean, exactly, when you are dealing with monsters?

United States v. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, et al. is an “open” and “public” proceeding, but getting as close as I could to the courtroom required spending roughly $1,000 and more than a week away from home. Most of the money was paid in two $400 checks made out to the U.S. Treasury, which covered a seat on a charter flight to Cuba from Andrews Air Force Base. To accept the Pentagon’s “invitation” to cover the proceedings, I was required to sign the 13-page Media Ground Rules document. Among other things, I agreed not to disclose any Protected Information. The definition of Protected Information makes ample use of the word includes and sets no upper limit on what Protected Information might be.

For the most part, News Media Representatives are confined to a few acres of Guantánamo, an area known as Camp Justice. Cut off from the town and the detention camps, Camp Justice is carved up into a jigsaw of designated zones by every conceivable type of wall: interlocking traffic barriers, chest-high, made of orange plastic; chains hanging between yellow stanchions; retractable fabric bands stretched airport-style between flimsier black stanchions; chain-link fences veiled in black tarps and topped with spools of concertina wire; chain-link blocks wrapped in green tarps and filled with rubble; “no photography” signs; “restricted area” signs; gates that swing on hinges; gates that pop up from the ground.

At the center of Camp Justice is the Expeditionary Legal Complex, a few trailers and peak-roofed, shedlike structures surrounded by floodlights. To enter the court complex, News Media Representatives navigate a maze of concertina-wired fences, passing through three checkpoints and two metal detectors. Our names and faces are checked against our Pentagon-issue badges and our passports, as though we were entering another country. Our pocket litter is emptied into clear plastic bags. In the antechamber, before entering the gallery, we are allowed to choose from one of three government-approved pens. The security process is a ritual, a washing away of unknowns to cleanse us of our latent terroristic potential.

In the months after Sept. 11, a U.S. general characterized the Accused as people who “would chew through a hydraulics cable” to bring down a cargo plane. The island’s security has fantasized about all possible contingencies. Certain trailers have concertina wire wrapped around their bottoms, lest the Accused slip their shackles and burrow through the floor. Pre-hearing conversations between the Accused and their attorneys take place in a narrow vestibule divided by two layers of wire mesh.

Six speakers embedded in the panels of the drop ceiling are the sole conduits through which sound can pass from the courtroom to the gallery. Before reaching our ears, these sounds passed through a 40-second audio delay controlled by a mysterious government contractor. If at any point someone were to say something that I was not supposed to hear, this censor could push a hidden button which replaces the audio feed with white noise.

When one is trying to follow a verbal exchange, 40 seconds is a long time. There, just on the other side of the Plexiglas, is the “live” courtroom, but the 40-second gap distorts it into an inscrutable mime show. To help make sense of it, there are five TV monitors hanging on the far side of the glass, synced up to the speakers, displaying whatever happened 40 seconds ago. The thing is happening right in front of you, but pretty soon you give up and watch it on TV.

* * *

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a terrorist mastermind—some newspapers put it just like that. Some modify “terrorist mastermind” with “self-styled,” “self-proclaimed,” or “confessed.” A few use “accused” or “alleged,” but not many, because everyone knows that KSM is guilty. Among the many crimes of which he stands accused is a conspiracy to hijack four commercial airliners on Sept. 11, 2001, and fly them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the U.S. Capitol, resulting in the deaths of 2,976 people. In 2008, before the incoming Obama administration tried and failed to transfer the case to a civilian court, KSM and his four co-defendants said they wanted to plead guilty. In 2009, they co-signed a document titled “The Islamic Response to the Government’s Nine Accusations,” in which they take credit for “the blessed September 11 operation,” and reaffirm a sacred duty to “killing you and fighting you, destroying you and terrorizing you.” Reading this document, one gets the sense that the Accused are indeed “monsters.” To put it in less histrionic terms, they are total assholes.

Sept. 11 was one of many large-scale plots cooked up by KSM since the early ‘90s and confessed to at a “combatant status review hearing” in 2007. At various points in his career he also plotted the destruction of former U.S. presidents, Pope John Paul II, suspension bridges, the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building, the New York Stock Exchange, nightclubs, airports, embassies, hotels, nuclear power plants, oil tankers, and the Panama Canal. At the hearing, he framed these plots as acts of war and argued that there was no moral difference between him and his captors:

What I wrote here … I’m not making myself hero, when I said I was responsible for this or that. But you are military man. You know very well there are language for any war. … If America, they want to invade Iraq, they will not send for Saddam roses or kisses. They send for a bombardment. … So when we made any war against America we are jackals fighting in the nights. … As consider George Washington as hero, Muslims, many of them, are considering Osama bin Laden. He is doing same thing. He is just fighting. … When I said I’m not happy that three thousand been killed in America. I feel sorry even. I don’t like to kill children and kids … killing, as in the Christianity, Jews, and Islam, are prohibited. But there are exceptions to the rule when you are killing people in Iraq. You said “we have to do it.” We don’t like Saddam. But this is the way to deal with Saddam. Same thing you are saying. Same language you use, I use.

Before his execution for the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh made similar arguments—that what he did was no different from what governments do in times of war. In their “Islamic Response” filing, the Accused cite Hiroshima and Nagasaki as part of their reply to the charge of attacking civilians. Rather than deny the charge of terrorism, they assert that “America is the terrorist country number one in the world. [It] has nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and the hydrogen bombs … threatening countries’ safety and security.”

I would say that you cannot justify some “X” through favorable comparison to some “Y,” if that “Y”  is already known to be bad. If the U.S. is indeed better than the terrorists, then the U.S. leadership shouldn’t have to resort to not-as-bad-as logic to justify U.S. policy. Nevertheless, they do:

Donald Rumsfeld, 2004, attempting to justify the military’s treatment of detainees:
“Does it rank up there with chopping someone’s head off on television? It doesn’t.”

Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, 2012, on drones strikes:
“The bottom line in the end is—whose four-year-old gets killed? What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that four-year-olds here are gonna get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.”

John Yoo, 2010, arguing for the president’s power to order the massacre of civilians:
“If, I thought it was military necessary … all you have to do is look at American history … look at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Henry Stimson, 1947, attempting to justify Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
“Additional fire raids of B-29’s would have been more destructive of life and property … this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.”

Rumsfeld echoed Stimson when he called Guantánamo “the least worst place we could have selected.” When the best we can do is to call ourselves the least worst, it should be taken as a sign that we are much worse than we might realize.

Mattathias Schwartz is the winner of the 2012 Livingston Award for international reporting. He lives in New York.