GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — Information emerged Tuesday that lent credibility to claims by the defendants in the Sept. 11 war crimes trial that a courtroom interpreter worked for the CIA during their confinement in secret prisons overseas.
A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the interpreter has worked in the past for the CIA. He said prosecutors had no role in hiring the interpreter to work on the defense team of one of five men facing trial by military commission at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
Ramzi Binalshibh, a 42-year-old defendant from Yemen, brought a hearing to a halt Monday when he told the judge that the interpreter sitting beside him in court for the first time was someone that he and other defendants recognized as having worked at a secret CIA “black site” overseas, where they were subjected to treatment widely considered torture before they were moved to Guantanamo in September 2006.
Lawyers later said four of the five defendants were certain they recognized the man and suggested his presence was no accident, that he may have been hired to infiltrate the defense teams as they handle classified evidence in preparation for what officials have called the most complex terrorism trial in U.S. history.
Army Lt. Col. Myles Caggins, a Pentagon spokesman on Guantanamo matters, denied any impropriety by the prosecution, without divulging details about the interpreter.
“The member of the defense team referenced in previous hearings has in the past made readily available to prospective supervisors his prior work experience with the United States government, including with the CIA,” Caggins said at the U.S. base in Cuba.
The hiring and vetting of defense interpreters, who are government contractors with security clearances, is the responsibility of the defense under rules for the tribunals, Caggins said. “The prosecution does not have any role in providing linguists to defense teams in military commissions,” he said.
The interpreter has helped translate for the military commissions since 2011 but only recently began working for Binalshibh, said a defense lawyer, James Harrington.
The new interpreter was working temporarily on the Binalshibh team to fill in for another translator who was forced to resign after he was questioned by the FBI, Harrington said. The nature and scope of the FBI questioning has not been publicly disclosed.
Cheryl Bormann, a lawyer for defendant Walid bin Attash, said interpreters are part of a pool of linguists provided to the defense and the lawyers do not see their resumes and cannot evaluate their background in detail.
Bormann said the presence of an interpreter with ties to the CIA “black sites” might be part of a campaign of infiltration of the defense teams. She and other lawyers have repeatedly pointed to what they see as a government effort to monitor and undermine the defense, including the FBI investigation and the discovery of listening devices disguised as smoke detectors in their meeting rooms, which the government denied using to eavesdrop on their conversations.
“Now the question is what other infiltration has occurred and to what extent has it destroyed our ability to represent these men,” she said.
Defense lawyers were expected to file requests for more information about the interpreter at a hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
The defendants, who also include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has portrayed himself as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack, face charges that include hijacking, terrorism and murder for planning and providing logistical support for the plot. They could get the death penalty if convicted. No trial date has been set.
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