Confession at Guantánamo by 9/11 Mastermind May Aid Other Qaeda
By ADAM LIPTAK
Published: March 16, 2007
The admissions made by the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks illuminated
and transformed the cases against him and the 13 other Qaeda leaders
transferred last year from C.I.A. prisons to the Navy base at Guantánamo
In acknowledging last Saturday his role in more than 30 terrorist attacks
and plots, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed certainly simplified the case against
himself and may have effectively signed his own death warrant when he
eventually faces a military trial.
But those same statements, released on Wednesday by the Pentagon, may
complicate the prosecution of his former colleagues.
Speaking to a military tribunal that considers just the narrow question of
whether Guantánamo detainees were properly designated as enemy combatants,
Mr. Mohammed was so expansive in his acceptance of responsibility that other
defendants might be able to use his statements in their own defense.
In a transcript of the hearing, Mr. Mohammed also disavowed information he
had told Central Intelligence Agency interrogators about his accomplices,
again potentially helping the other defendants.
A revised version of the transcript released Thursday added another chilling
confession. Mr. Mohammed said he decapitated Daniel Pearl, a reporter for
The Wall Street Journal, in Pakistan in 2002. The military said it had held
back the passage about Mr. Pearl while it notified his family.
That confession could figure in the case of Ahmed Omar Sheikh, who is
appealing his death sentence in Pakistan for his role in Mr. Pearl’s
abduction and murder. Mr. Mohammed and the other Qaeda leaders will
eventually face charges before military commissions that they are guilty of
war crimes, many of which carry death sentences.
Unlike the recent proceedings, before Combatant Status Review Tribunals,
those trials will largely resemble ones before civilian criminal courts.
Officials have said that they intend to charge the men this year and that
those trials could start early next year.
The trials of three less significant detainees, none of them among the 14
leaders, are expected to begin soon.
It is not clear whether Mr. Mohammed was really involved in as many
terrorism plots as he said or whether he was simply indulging in a penchant
for drama and self-aggrandizement. Nonetheless, his confession could have a
significant effect on the round of tribunals. Several lawyers said his
statement could be used against him in other settings.
“This statement is admissible and substantially hampers the ability of the
defense to argue that he is not guilty,” said David B. Rivkin, an official
in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush.
“The other side may argue that the poor dear was so stressed out by his
earlier treatment that it had a lingering effect. That dog ain’t going to
John Sifton, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said he questioned
whether the statement read for Mr. Mohammed by his representative
authentically reflected his views.
“The grammar of it alone, when juxtaposed with his version of English,
suggests it was prepared for him,” Mr. Sifton said. “It looked to me like it
was printed out of whitehouse.gov.”
But Mr. Mohammed in places amended and then expressly adopted the statement,
telling tribunal officials that he was not under any pressure or duress as
he did so. He later freely discussed aspects of his terrorism activities in
an extended monologue to the tribunal.
The debate over the consequences of Mr. Mohammed’s admissions rekindled a
larger one, about whether he and other terrorism suspects should be
considered criminals or combatants. Mr. Mohammed embraced the administration
view at the informal hearing on Saturday. He was, he said, a soldier. He
compared his actions to the revolutionary zeal of George Washington, spoke
on behalf of people he said were improperly detained after the attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001, and criticized American and Israeli foreign policy.
By giving him that platform on a military level, the United States has
dignified and legitimized a criminal, Mr. Sifton said, adding that could
have been avoided by charging Mr. Mohammed with crimes in ordinary American
John Yoo, an architect of the administration’s legal response to the Sept.
11 attacks who is now a law professor at the University of California,
Berkeley, drew a different conclusion from the transcript.
“K.S.M.’s statements show that he in fact was and is a treasure trove of
intelligence information on Al Qaeda,” Professor Yoo said, referring to Mr.
Mohammed by his initials. “He knew not just of past plots to attack the
United States, but threats that were in motion at the time of his capture,
threats that had to be stopped.
“The criminal justice system cannot handle the demand both for an open trial
with the right to remain silent and the need to collect that intelligence
and act on it swiftly and secretly.”
Mr. Rivkin said Mr. Mohammed’s statement confirmed the correctness of
treating him as a combatant rather than a criminal.
“The only people who don’t think we’re at war are the critics,” Mr. Rivkin
said. “We think we’re at war, and they think they’re at war.”
In the transcript, Mr. Mohammed said he had made false statements to “C.I.A.
peoples,” and he gave examples, though the military deleted most of the
details. Although the transcripts were redacted, they hinted of the
aggressive questioning of Mr. Mohammed in his more than three years in C.I.A.
They also showed some of the limitations of the hearings. Mr. Mohammed was
denied what in criminal proceedings would be rudimentary protections,
including, notably, the right to a lawyer.
The “personal representative” provided to Mr. Mohammed by the military, an
Air Force lieutenant colonel whose name was not released, recited a 31-point
statement in which Mr. Mohammed confessed to a vast array of crimes.
A criminal defense lawyer, by contrast, would have almost certainly advised
a client to say nothing.
The two roles are very different, said Jumana Musa, an advocacy director at
Amnesty International USA, which has been sharply critical of the detention
“A personal representative is not a lawyer,” she said. “There is not
privileged relationship. He can turn over any information he learns from the
detainee, whether exculpatory or incriminatory.”
A second high-value Guantánamo detainee refused to appear before a status
tribunal last Friday. But, through his representative, the detainee, Abu
Faraj al-Libbi, submitted a comprehensive critique of the procedures used by
“No lawyer, either assigned to the detainee or by the detainee’s choosing,
has been made available to the detainee to assist in determining the nature
of the evidence presented against him, its legality and its validity as
evidence,” Mr. Libbi’s statement said. “The detainee needs legal guidance as
to what kind of testimonies and statements are enough to refute the evidence
presented against him.
“I am extremely keen to exercise my rights fully according the law of the
Lawyers for some Guantánamo detainees have asked the United States Supreme
Court to hear their challenge to a recent law, the Military Commissions Act,
that barred them from questioning the legality of their detentions in
civilian courts through petitions for writs of habeas corpus.
The hurried status proceedings over the weekend may have been intended to
demonstrate to the court that an alternative procedure is available and
Professor Yoo said the military system was adequate and appropriate.
“The C.S.R.T. and military-commission process,” he said, using the initials
of the review tribunals, “are the best way to balance the wartime needs for
the trove of intelligence that K.S.M. has, while still creating a process
that reviews whether he should remain in detention.”