GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- The chief war crimes prosecutor is proposing to start jury selection in the Sept. 11 terror trial in March 2018, a date defense lawyers said Tuesday was too soon.
"I think they are hopelessly optimistic in putting out that date," said Jay Connell, defense attorney for defendant Ammar al Baluchi, the nephew of the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He and other defense attorneys said Tuesday that the prosecution and judge have not given them the bulk of the national security information they need to prepare for trial.
Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins told reporters Monday night that he has filed the proposed timetable with the court to start picking the U.S. military officers as jurors in the tribunal of Mohammed and four alleged conspirators. Once chosen, he said, he expects it will take the prosecution six to eight weeks to present its case.
The timetable filing was still being reviewed by security officials, and unavailable to the public. But Connell said that perhaps Martins proposed it to "justify the military commission process to the new administration."
Five men are accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field. They were formally charged May 5, 2012, but progress has been slow as lawyers and the judge navigate national security issues for men who were disappeared for three and four years into the CIA's secret prison network, the black sites.
Martins' counterpart, chief defense counsel Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker likewise called the timetable "unrealistic." Baker, who is responsible for getting resources for his defense teams, has been seeking more staff, including five additional death penalty lawyers to prepare for trial.
But it was unclear whether the Office of Military Commissions would be allowed to fill approved positions in light of an executive order President Donald Trump signed Monday freezing hiring people for non-national security jobs.
The need for a second death penalty defense counsel on each of the cases was brought into sharp relief this week after one of them broke her arm, requiring surgery, and was unable to make the trip from Washington, D.C. The first war court hearings of the Trump administration open Wednesday with the judge deciding whether one of the accused, Walid bin Attash, can voluntarily agree to go forward with this week's hearings without his so-called learned counsel, Cheryl Bormann.
News of the proposed timetable also comes days after the trial judge Army Col. James L. Pohl wrote a blistering decision -- also still under seal at the war court -- about lack of logistical preparation at Guantanamo for a trial involving what Obama administration officials called "the crime of the century," according to those who read it.
At issue in that instance was an as-yet unexplained decision at this remote Navy base in Cuba to cancel all 2017 reservations for temporary base housing for visiting war court staff, including at the officers' quarters where the judge and his staff have been housed for years.
Some war court visitors, including Gens. Martins and Baker, stay in a trailer park at Camp Justice that is not controlled by the base. But some officers and civilians expected to argue in court have traditionally been able to book into hotel-style base housing.
Attorney Jim Harrington, defending Yemeni Ramzi bin al Shibh, an alleged Sept. 11 plot deputy, called a March 2018 start date "not conceivable." Rather, he said, "I think 2020 is a more realistic year to start."
"We haven't even begun to scratch the surface yet on receiving classified information," Harrington added. Once the prosecution and judge turn over the evidence they believe the defense attorneys should get, defense teams would then turn in earnest to translation, investigation and requests for additional evidence, he said.