9/11 Justice: War Crimes Trials Don't Engage Public
On Sept. 11, the trials at Guantánamo designed to get justice seem remote, military-run affairs that don't capture the imagination of the American people.
WASHINGTON - This time of year especially,
Carole O'Hare gets stuck in a sad reverie at her California home,
wondering about the last moments of her mother's life, alone, aboard
the hijacked Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.
''I think of my mom sitting
on that plane by herself,'' she says of Hilda Marcin, 79, listed as
victim No. 2,964 on the Pentagon's 9/11 war crimes charge sheet. ``I
can't imagine what those 40 minutes were like. It must have been a
Seven years ago today, the horrific hijackings united
this nation in grief and determination. Now, despite four years of
on-again, off-again Guantánamo war crimes tribunals designed to get
Sept. 11 justice, there is little evidence that the trials resonate
with victims' families and the American public.
trials are much more secretive,'' said O'Hare, 56. ``If Khalid Sheik
Mohammed was the mastermind of the attack, and these attacks took place
in the United States, that's where the trials should occur.''
blame the tribunals' location -- a military outpost in southeast Cuba
-- and focus so far on foot soldiers. Attendance at the no-broadcast
trials is by Pentagon invitation only. Others say accounts and
allegations of detainee abuse tarnish the tribunals.
ever since the world watched O.J. Simpson try on that black glove --
live on television in 1995 -- Americans have wanted high-profile trials
be a shared, national experience.
And that may be how Guantánamo disappoints.
''It all feels so remote,'' says Marcia Clark, the former Los Angeles prosecutor and legal analyst at Entertainment Tonight. ``Few people even seem to be aware of the trials going on, and fewer still seem to care.''
She blames a blend of indifference and ignorance.
because 9/11 is long past and people want it to stay that way. Partly
because they can't see it, and partly because it's confusing: What is a
military jury? Who are these defendants? What did they do, and what are
we prosecuting them for?
''The sense I get from people is that
it's all a black hole they know nothing about and the lack of TV
coverage makes it all completely inaccessible,'' Clark told The Miami
Defenders of the system say it's not their fault.
have for years hamstrung the trials through challenges to the post-9/11
rules that created them. So much so that in 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court
found the first format unconstitutional, sending the White House to
Congress to tweak and ratify it.
Now, 23 men have been charged
with two convictions -- one by pleading guilty. Hearings Wednesday at
Guantánamo focused on Canadian Omar Khadr, who is accused in the 2002
grenade-killing of a U.S. commando, when Khadr was 15.
the CIA had clandestine custody of the 9/11 accused for years.
President Bush ordered their transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006;
their trials are unlikely to start this year.
''There will come a
point, I believe, in time when the American public in general will
focus on the accountability for 9/11,'' says Charles ''Cully'' Stimson,
a Heritage Foundation scholar who until last year was the Pentagon's
Detainee Affairs czar. ``I can't predict when that's going to be. But
it will happen.''
Advocates defend the inaccessibility -- and
sometime secret hearings -- as a national security necessity better
suited to cope with new dangers in a war on terror.
say the trials grant terrorism suspects unprecedented rights akin to
those the United States affords its own accused troops, but critics
complain that the courts sacrifice American due process.
Hence, the disconnect.
Listen to veteran New York columnist Jimmy Breslin, 77, who swears he outran cops fleeing the crumpling towers at Ground Zero:
don't want officers sitting down there. I want a legal system,'' he
said. ``Are we supposed to throw all American ideals and values out the
window to accommodate the CIA's mistakes, failures?''
But if a
confession can't survive the scrutiny of a federal court judge in New
York, says Breslin, ``it's a travesty. No one would recognize the
results of it.''
In June, the Air Force brigadier supervising the
war court testified that he urged lawyers to think about how to use
their limited resources to stage trials that ``capture the imagination
of the American people.''
Now, says spokesman Joseph DellaVedova:
``Our focus is on providing full and fair trials for people accused of
violating the laws of war. Although it may appear some cases receive
more media or public attention than others, that has zero bearing on
how the system operates.''
This summer, a military jury convicted
Osama bin Laden's driver of supporting terror, as the al Qaeda
chieftain's wheelman in Afghanistan.
It was the first U.S. conviction by war crimes tribunal since World War II.
But in a news cycle dominated by national presidential politics, the trial of Salim Hamdan was barely a blip in the blogosphere.
driver's trial ''struck me as really peripheral,'' says retired Army
Lt. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University international relations
professor and Vietnam veteran whose soldier son was killed in a May
2007 suicide bombing in Iraq.
Once President Bush took the war on
terror to Iraq, said Bacevich, the campaign ``went far beyond simply
trying to get the perpetrators of 9/11 and prevent another 9/11 from
The Defense Department holds 255 war-on-terror detainees at Guantánamo and has plans to put up to 80 on trial.
presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama say they plan to
close Guantánamo, their plans for prosecuting the captives could lead
to more coverage of the trials.
Obama favors holding trials in
standard military or civilian courts, where due process rights could
collide with battlefield evidence.
As an architect of the trials
that permit hearsay evidence and self-incrimination, McCain would keep
the commissions but perhaps stage them on U.S. soil.
former deputy assistant secretary for defense, says the Pentagon has
made ''a strategic mistake'' by declining to beam close-circuit feeds
of the trials from Guantánamo to the United States so the public can
The Pentagon has plans to show closed-circuit feeds
of the proceedings to pre-approved 9/11 victims at four military bases
on the East Coast. Some family members will also be invited to watch at
Meantime, the Pentagon has set aside 60 slots for journalists to cover the trials.
go as guests of the Department of Defense, on condition they sign
ground rules that govern their $400 military travel from Washington,
with whom they can speak and where they can sit, and that they pledge
not to report ''protected information'' they may hear in court.
But the media center, at an abandoned hangar, reached capacity once
-- on June 5, when for the first time, prosecutors brought five men accused of the Sept. 11 conspiracy before a judge.
By the men's second appearance, the 60 journalists dwindled to a
Amnesty International observer Jumana Musa, a harsh critic of the
process, has watched the proceedings for three years and says the
contrast with the federal trial of Zacarias Moussaoui couldn't be more
stark. Observers, like her, commuted to the confessed 20th Hijacker's
pretrial hearings and the trial itself in Alexandria, Va., when they
chose, filed through metal detectors just like the media and general
public, and spoke to scrums of journalists outside the court, without a
Musa sees it, the distance between U.S. soil and Guantánamo lets the Pentagon control the conversation -- something no
government agency could do during the O.J. Simpson trial.
Americans started out debating whether the football star turned actor
was guilty or innocent. But the discussion went deeper to include race,
domestic abuse, and wealth.
Were the terror trials open, Musa said,
‘‘you'd get no debate on whether these guys are really guilty or
innocent." The alleged 9/11 mastermind declared at his first court
appearance that he welcomed martyrdom.
Instead, she imagined trials
stirring a different debate -- on national security issues, "disappearance and torture and the CIA."
At the National Park Visitor's Center at Shanksville, Penn., volunteer
Donna Glessner says she has a hunger to learn more about that dark day
seven years ago that made her home ''the accidental real estate'' where
Flight 93 went down in a desperate struggle between passengers and
Among her questions: Who was a part of the plot?
Was the U.S. Capitol building the target? Or the White House? How was
''I hope that more information will come to light when those trials happen,'' she said.
the trial is at Guantánamo Bay or in New York City, wherever, the
circumstances surrounding the trials are of interest.''