GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, June 5, 2008 -- Dressed all in white with large glasses and a long gray beard, the man who imagined the unimaginable appeared at his arraignment today for his role as the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, making his first public appearance since he was captured in 2003, was asked by the military judge if he understood that the charges against him could bring the death penalty. Mohammed responded, "That is what I wish. I wish to be martyred" and, he added, "I understand very well."
Mohammed has admitted he developed the murderous plot to fly airplanes into buildings. He allegedly insisted the planes hit buildings, even when Osama bin Laden purportedly said hijacking them and crashing them in the ground would be enough.
At one point in today's proceedings, Mohammed told military judge Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann, "I know I can't talk about torture."
Today's hearing, held in a new $4 million courtroom built exclusively for the trials of terror suspects, comes nearly seven years after the worst terror attack in the nation's history. Mohammed appeared with four other top al Qaeda terror suspects on this military installation to hear the government charge them with the deaths of 3,000 people.
Mohammed's appearance stood in stark contrast to the government-released photograph of him at the time of his capture in a 2003 nightime raid in Pakistan. In the picture, he looks overweight, disheveled and slovenly.
Today he and the other defendants sat at separate tables with their lawyers, facing Kohlmann. When asked by Kohlmann if he agreed to be represented by the lawyers, Mohammed said he would represent himself because he would not accept any lawyer not using Sharia law, and added, "God is the real judge."
Chains lie on the floor by the defendants' chairs.
The public has not heard from Mohammed since the Pentagon released the transcript of his March 10, 2007, appearance at a procedural hearing held to determine his status as a so-called enemy combatant.
At that hearing, which was not open to the press, Mohammed admitted that he was in charge of the "organizing, planning, follow-up and execution of the 9/11 operation. "In broken English, and using a translator at times, Mohammed said he took responsibility for the 9/11 operation "from A to Z," as well as the planning for dozens of other attacks, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
He also admitted to plotting assassination attempts against former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, as well as Pope John Paul II.
Mohammed claimed he was tortured by his interrogators, whom he referred to as "CIA peoples."
The CIA has admitted subjecting Mohammed to the interrogation technique called waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
At the end of the 2007 hearing, Mohammed made a rambling statement in which he regretted the deaths of children in connection with the 9/11 attacks. "I feel very sorry they been killed," he said.
Gathered at Guantanamo for Thursday's hearing are about 60 media representatives from around the world, including correspondents for broadcasts seen widely in the Arab world, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.
The hearing is the first step toward trying the men for murder, conspiracy and a host of other charges. The trials, which are being compared to the Nuremburg trials after World War II, will take place before military commissions created specifically for 9/11 terror suspects.
The system of military commissions has been mired for years in controversy, legal challenges and setbacks. Critics, including some military lawyers, say the system is unfair, relying on secret or coerced evidence, and is rigged to get convictions. They question whether it ever will get off the ground, with an election and new administration on the horizon.
"All Americans, including 9/11 victims, deserve better than a system that allows confessions extracted by torture, secret evidence that a defendant cannot rebut and hearsay," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union who was present at the arraignment. "Only a fair and just process can guarantee a legitimate outcome. This is too important to get wrong."
ACLU's statement released today also made reference to the fact that after being held separately for years, today the detainees were "allowed to interact with the obvious goal of allowing them to present a unified rejection of legal representation."
The government insists the trials will be fair and open and will take place as scheduled. Lawyers say the arraignment Thursday marks a key turning point, not only in showing the commissions are up and running for the so-called "worst of the worst" but for the suspects themselves.
"Each one of them is innocent today, innocent until proven guilty," said Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the top legal adviser at Guantanamo.
Appearing in the courtroom with Mohammed were the four other top al Qaeda suspects -- Walid Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Mustafa Ahmed Adam al Hawsawi -- who are believed to have been directly involved in either the planning, training or financing of Sept. 11.
Hartmann said he expects defense to mount an aggressive defense.
"It will be a battle royale in the courtroom. It will be what a trial is supposed to be, a very aggressive approach from the prosecution and the defense, bringing the matters of law to the judge, bringing the matters of fact to the jury, to allow them to decide," Hartmann said. "It will be an aggressive, intense experience, as a trial is supposed to be, to bring out the truth."
The sharpest objections are expected over the use of aggressive interrogation techniques the CIA used against the suspects, including waterboarding Mohammed.
"The [commissions] allow convictions based on secret evidence, evidence obtained by coercion or torture," said David Remes, a lawyer who is representing another suspect at Guantanamo.
President Bush has said the government will not use evidence obtained by torture. But Hartmann and others have refused to say whether that includes waterboarding. Hartmann said those questions will be for the judge to decide.
"We are ready, on any piece of evidence, to deal with any objection to it and argue those objections in open court," said Col. Larry Morris, the chief prosecutor. "We are confident that all of the evidence that we will present is obtained in a manner that is fully fair." In light of those concerns, the government sent teams of FBI agents to Guantanamo to reinterview many of the suspects. The so-called "clean teams" conducted interviews without using aggressive techniques, with an eye on obtaining evidence not tainted by coercion.
The government has moved quickly in recent months to bring more suspects to trial after years of setbacks and controversies. Twenty suspects now are headed toward trial, and the first of Osama bin Laden's driver is scheduled to take place in July.
It's been a long time in coming. The Bush administration began planning for special military commissions shortly after the attacks. On Nov. 13, 2001, Bush signed an order authorizing the use of military tribunals to try alleged terrorists.
The president authorized the tribunals "to protect the United States and its citizens, and for the effective conduct of military operations and prevention of terrorist attacks."
But the administration's plans were eventually derailed in 2005 by the Supreme Court, which said Bush lacked authority to move forward without approval from Congress.
The White House then went to Congress, which passed a law approving the commissions called the Military Commissions Act of 2006. The president signed the bill into law during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. He said, "These military commissions will provide a fair trial in which the accused are presumed innocent, have access to an attorney, and can hear all the evidence against them. These military commissions are lawful, they are fair, and they are necessary."
ABC News reporter Ariane de Vogue contributed to this report in Washington.