Agents defend 9/11 questioning at Guantanamo


GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba | Two U.S. federal agents on Monday defended their interrogation of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner accused of providing assistance to the Sept. 11 hijackers as a pretrial hearing resumed in the slowly unfolding war crimes proceedings for the five men charged in the attacks.

The agents — one from the FBI, the other from a Department of Defense task force — portrayed their questioning of Mustafa al-Hawsawi in 2007 as civil. They said the prisoner could understand them, even though the sessions were in English and the Saudi prisoner’s first language is Arabic, and that he was aware that he didn’t have to speak to them.

“He could stop the conversation at any time,” Stephen McClain, an agent with the Criminal Investigative Task Force, said under defense questioning. Later, he added: “He could leave the room at any time.”

McClain and veteran James Fitzgerald of the FBI were part of a group of agents dubbed the “clean team,” who were sent to Guantanamo Bay to question the lead suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks after the men were transferred to military custody after years of being held by the CIA overseas and subjected to harsh interrogations that would likely make their previous statements inadmissible in court.

Lawyers for the five prisoners, who face charges that include murder and terrorism, are beginning to challenge the statements made to agents such as Fitzgerald and McClain.

In Monday’s session, a lawyer for al-Hawsawi, Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, focused largely on the language, questioning whether his client could adequately understand the agents. McClain and Fitzgerald said that though his English was accented he appeared to understand everything that was said in the multiple sessions and did not ask for a translator.

Under questioning, Fitzgerald, a veteran counter-terrorism agent with the FBI, said al-Hawsawi was not told he could have a lawyer present during the interrogations because he was not required to do so under the law. The prisoner was cooperative and had a “friendly, reserved demeanor,” he said. The sessions were apparently not recorded or videotaped and the only records of them are the agent’s notes.

Al-Haswawi is accused of providing money, clothing and other support to the hijackers who crashed passenger planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The challenge to the interrogations over the language is one of about 30 motions scheduled to be heard this week at the U.S. base in Cuba. Others include a prosecution proposal for a trial date in July 2014, a timeline that defense lawyers say would be impossible to meet.

The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, did not rule on any motions Monday. Much of the afternoon was taken up with a discussion about the health of defendant Walid bin Attash, whose lawyer says is too sick with a form of gastroenteritis to attend court. A decision on that issue was postponed until Tuesday. The court then went into a closed session to discuss an undisclosed classified issue.

This is the fifth pretrial motions sessions since the May 2012 arraignment of the five defendants, who include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani national who has portrayed himself as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 plot. Each defendant faces charges that include nearly 3,000 counts of murder and could get the death penalty if convicted.