The American Flag flies at the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay chapel during a 9/11 remembrance ceremony Sept. 11, 2018. (National Guard photo by Sgt. Zach Tomesh/112 MPAD/JTF GTMO PAO)

New George Mason University Report Suggests Ways to Speed 9/11 Trials

The U.S. military justice system is designed for military personnel, not terrorists, says a new report from the National Security Institute (NSI) at George Mason University as it calls for reform.

Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President George W. Bush signed an order authorizing military commissions to prosecute international terrorists for violations of the laws of war. However, in its 2006 decision Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court quashed those efforts and Congress was needed to re-establish the commissions, which was done through the Military Commissions Acts of 2006 and 2009.

There are currently three military commissions actively engaged in protracted pre-trial litigation concerning seven defendants, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others charged as co-conspirators related to the 9/11 plot.

Many factors have contributed to the lengthy proceedings and pre-trial litigation, but the NSI Law and Policy paper says congressional attention to three key issues has the potential to eliminate significant impediments to reaching trial.

These issues are:

Curbing Misinterpretation and Abuse of the Unlawful Influence Statute

The sheer number of allegations concerning unlawful influence demonstrate the need for reforms. The report’s author, Adam R. Pearlman, says the “Apparent Unlawful Influence” doctrine should not apply to military commissions because the underlying rationale is inapplicable. Pearlman adds that relying on the prohibition against actual unlawful influence is a better approach.

Restoring the Contempt Power of Commissions Trial Judges

A federal court ruled last year that military commissions trial judges cannot unilaterally find someone in contempt. The “contempt power” refers generally to the inherent and unilateral power of a judge to enact punishments for acts that obstruct the court’s orders or the administration of the justice system.

Clarifying Permissible Detainee Monitoring

The military commissions defense bar has raised several allegations of government surveillance of attorney-client meetings at Guantanamo Bay, but the report says there is precedent for conducting surveillance of detained or imprisoned terrorists during attorney-client meetings for intelligence and force protection purposes.

GITMO Teams Will ‘Stay with the Case as Long as Necessary’ to Bring Justice for 9/11 Attacks

The report sets out three actionable recommendations to address these issues.

  1. First, Congress should amend current law to clarify that the military justice common law doctrine of “apparent unlawful command influence” does not apply to proceedings under the Military Commissions Act, and to provide for appeals of findings of actual unlawful influence. The proposed amendment to the unlawful influence statute would hold judges accountable for rigorous fact-finding, rather than conjecture concerning appearances in this highly public process, about which passions run high from all sides of the bar and political spectrum.
  2. Second, Congress should amend current law to provide military commissions judges with a unilateral contempt power consistent with those found in the criminal and military justice systems. Amending the contempt provision will restore to the military commissions trial judiciary a basic power all other judges have – the power to control proceedings in their courtrooms.
  3. Finally, Congress should consider a means to clarify that the statutory right to counsel in military commissions does not encompass a right to be free from monitoring for security, intelligence, and force protection purposes, and establish a framework to ensure any surveillance is walled-off from military commission proceedings. Pearlman says clarifying that there is no inherent due process concern with legitimate collection against national security targets likely to have foreign intelligence and information related to force protection concerns will remove a critical distraction from the system.

Beyond those recommended in the paper, Pearlman mentions additional measures Congress might consider:

  • Establishing military commissions as the trial judges’ primary duty, with the location of the proceedings as their primary duty station.
  • Clarify that the authority to dismiss defense counsel from their representational duties after an attorney-client relationship has been established lies with commissions trial judges, not the Chief Defense Counsel.
  • Streamlining the arduous discovery process.
  • Examining the practice of having the accused present at the beginning of every court session to enquire as to whether he waives his presence.
  • Affirming the proper extent of the subpoena power able to be exercised in relation to the commissions.
  • Revisiting the structure and role of the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review.
  • Vesting jurisdiction for litigation over conditions of confinement with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia as an issue properly lying in habeas rather than continuing the current practice of commissions litigating detention commissions at nearly every session as it arguably relates to the ability of the accused to participate in his defense.

Pearlman says lengthy delays have exposed the need to make statutory reforms to achieve justice for the victims and the accused, and ultimately restore confidence in this “important age-old war power.”

“Although some unforced errors like those addressed in the D.C. Circuit’s al-Nashiri decision [last week] need to be addressed by other means, modest statutory reforms can remedy a few key issues delaying resolution to some of the most significant trials of this conflict,” he said.

GITMO Diary: Follow Proceedings for Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and Other 9/11 Defendants

Kristina Tanasichuk is Executive Editor of Homeland Security Today and CEO of the Government Technology & Services Coalition. She founded GTSC to advance communication and collaboration between the public and private sector in defense of our homeland.  A leader in homeland security public private partnership, critical infrastructure protection, cyber security, STEM, innovation, commercialization and much more, she brings to HSToday decades of experience and expertise in the intersection of the public and private sectors in support of our homeland's security. Tanasichuk worked for Chairman Tom Bliley on electric utility restructuring for the House Commerce Committee, represented municipal electric utilities sorting out deregulation, the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. and ran the largest homeland security conference and trade show in the country. Immediately after 9/11 she represented public works departments In homeland security and emergency management. She is also the president and founder of Women in Homeland Security and served as president of InfraGard of the National Capital Region, a member of the Fairfax County Law Enforcement Foundation, the U.S. Coast Guard Enlisted Memorial Foundation and on the Board of USCG Mutual Assistance. She has an MPA from George Mason University and has attended the FBI and DEA Citizens Academies and the Marine Corps Executive Leadership Program. Most recently she was awarded the "Above & Beyond Award" by the Intelligence & Law Enforcement Training Seminar (INLETS) and was awarded Small Business Person of the Year by AFCEA International. Tanasichuk brings a new vision and in-depth knowledge of the federal homeland and national security apparatus to the media platform.

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