Old terror case files are being dusted off as the administration of US President Barack Obama considers prosecuting high-profile Guantanamo Bay detainees in civilian courts, focusing on crimes allegedly committed before Sept. 11, 2001. It is a tactic that could allow the US government to limit testimony about harsh, more recent interrogations and to avoid revealing sensitive intelligence about al-Qaeda.
Some of the detainees, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, have criminal charges pending from alleged terror plots long before the 2001 attacks.
A senior US Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the government was still reviewing cases, said bringing such detainees to trial on prior charges was just one of many possibilities being considered. No decisions have been made.
Reviving the long-dormant cases would pose some legal hurdles — particularly a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, given how long Mohammed and others have been in US custody.
The detainees were captured in the globe-spanning war to defeat al-Qaeda. The most wanted suspects were interrogated by the CIA before being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Now, the Obama administration must decide whether they stand trial before military tribunals or in civilian federal courts as a step toward shutting down the military prison.
If they are tried on older charges, not based on questioning since Sept. 11, prosecutors could argue that testimony or evidence regarding more recent interrogations could not be admitted into evidence.
Under court rules, prosecutors are required to reveal to the defense much of what they have learned in an investigation concerning the charges a defendant faces. In past cases, such information has made its way back to terror plotters, including al-Qaeda.
In Mohammed’s case, he could face trial for what is known as the “Bojinka” plot. Three other people already have been convicted in the 1995 plot to simultaneously blow up commercial airliners across the Pacific Ocean — an idea that eventually morphed into the Sept. 11 airliner hijacking conspiracy.
When he was indicted in the Bojinka plot, Mohammed was seen as a little-known co-conspirator to Ramzi Yousef, the brains behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. One person was killed by a test run of the Bojinka plot.
Since his capture in 2003, Mohammed has become the most high-profile terror suspect in US custody.