GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Military lawyers defending Osama bin Laden’s former driver on terrorism charges in the U.S. war court at Guantanamo Bay have offered a compromise in their quest to interview September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
They promised not to ask Mohammed about his treatment in U.S. custody or about the CIA’s admission that it subjected him to a simulated drowning technique known as “waterboarding” during interrogations.
Bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and faces life in prison if convicted in the Guantanamo court of conspiring with al Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism.
The Yemeni man said he never joined al Qaeda, had no advance knowledge of its attacks and became bin Laden’s driver in Afghanistan because he needed the salary of $200 per month.
Hamdan’s lawyers said Mohammed -- the highest-ranking al Qaeda leader held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- can help their defense by telling them what role, if any, Hamdan had in the organization.
They likened it to somebody “on trial for organized crime and you’ve got the opportunity to bring in the godfather.”
The request was still pending when a pretrial hearing ended on Thursday but the military judge suggested he might at least let the lawyers question Mohammed via written notes.
The judge is expected to rule in the next couple of weeks and Hamdan is scheduled to go to trial in May. So far, only one captive -- an Australian man -- has been convicted by the widely criticized court and that was in a plea bargain.
Prosecutors said Mohammed, accused of masterminding the attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants on September 11, 2001, was too dangerous an enemy in an ongoing war to allow defense lawyers to go on “a fishing expedition.”
“The defense is asking for access to some of the most notorious terrorists the world has ever seen,” said one of the prosecutors, Air Force Lt. Col. William Britt.
There was a risk of endangering U.S. agents if Mohammed revealed to the defense lawyers the sources and methods the government used to get information from him, prosecutors said.
The CIA has acknowledged using waterboarding, which critics say is a form of illegal torture, on Mohammed and two other senior al Qaeda leaders who were later sent to Guantanamo.
The defense lawyers, one of whom has top clearance to view government secrets, said they disapproved of waterboarding but would not ask Mohammed about it or about anything that occurred after the September 11 attacks.
Mohammed is one of 15 “high-value” al Qaeda prisoners held separately from the other 260 non-U.S. captives at Guantanamo in a facility whose location is kept secret even from the officers who run the other detention camps.
Prosecutors also objected to defense requests to question six other high-value prisoners.
“Equally wrapped up in secret tape, eh?” asked the judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred.
He said the defense had shown adequate need to question Mohammed and suggested they conduct the interview via written questions and answers, which the prosecutors also opposed.
The United States set up the Guantanamo tribunals to try suspected terrorists after the September 11 attacks but so far, none of the handful of prisoners facing charges has been accused of direct involvement in the attacks.
No defense lawyer has been allowed access to the high-value group, which was brought to Guantanamo in 2006 after about three years in secret CIA custody.
One of Hamdan’s lawyers, retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, said that raised a crucial question about U.S. plans to try those important figures.
“Who is going to represent Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and when will his trial be?” Swift said. (Editing by John O‘Callaghan)