As the trials for the alleged perpetrators of the attacks on the guided-missile destroyer Cole and 9/11 draw closer, the Defense Department should consider how it plans to broaden public access to the proceedings, a government watchdog agency recommended.
Noting that interest in the trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged orchestrator of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, alleged planner of the attack on the Cole, will likely increase among victims, family members, the media and the general public when their dates are set, the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday recommended that the Pentagon prepare now to ensure that it can meet public access demands.
Currently, the DoD allows a limited number of victims, family members, press and the general public to view pre-trial proceedings, held at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It also has closed-circuit television viewing rooms at five military bases on the East Coast. According to the GAO, 359 victims and family members have watched the proceedings in Cuba since 2011, out of 1,140 who expressed interest in attending.
The DoD has counted an additional 433 victims and family members since 2011 at closed-circuit TV sites to view the proceedings for Mohammed, al-Nashiri and others who faced trial at Guantanamo. A total of 2,304 visitors, including the general public, media and other interested parties, have watched at Guantanamo and the CCTV sites, according to the GAO.
When the trials begin, however, there likely will be significantly more interest and "DoD has not developed a strategy to address challenges or identified the resources needed to achieve its public access goals," the GAO noted.
GAO analysts proposed several options for improving access to the proceedings, including increasing the number of the seats in the courtroom at Guantanamo; adding or opening more CCTV sites to the general public; adding sites solely for use by victims and family members; broadcasting the proceedings over the internet publicly; and establishing a password-protected broadcast only for victims and their family members.
Each option has its benefits and drawbacks, and the Pentagon should weigh all of them, the GAO recommended.
Trial dates have not been set for Mohammed or al-Nashiri, both of whom could face the death penalty if convicted.
Jury selection is scheduled for Feb. 19, 2020, in the case of Abd al Hai al Iraqi, who faces charges of commanding al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan.
The Cole was attacked on Oct. 12, 2000, in the port of Aden, Yemen, killing 17 sailors. Al-Nashiri was captured in Dubai in November 2002 and transferred to Guantanamo in 2006.
Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan in 2003; he also has been at Guantanamo since 2006.
According to the report, victims and family members told the GAO they support broader access for the general public.
DoD leaders interviewed by the GAO agreed that the public should be allowed to watch the proceedings, as long as classified information remained protected.
"The current chief prosecutor for military commissions stated that public access is ... 'hugely important' and that [the commissions] are 'owned by the American People,' " the report states.
In a response to the GAO recommendations, the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions said it concurred and would form a working group to study the issue.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.