Pentagon launches war court website

The Pentagon on Wednesday launched a new website Wednesday aimed at providing up-to-date information about military trials of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo, then used it to announce the first death penalty war crimes prosecution of the Obama administration.

Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 46, a former Saudi millionaire, is accused of masterminding al Qaida's suicide bombing of a U.S. Navy warship in a Yemeni port a decade ago. His trial will be the first full military commission of the Obama era at a time when the White House is still committed to closing the prison camps. Wednesday, the Pentagon held 171 captives at its base in southeast Cuba, just four of them convicted war criminals.

News organizations have complained for years that the operation of the war court was often shrouded in secrecy and asked the Pentagon last year to begin posting information about military commission filings on the Internet as part of a push for better access to Guantanamo proceedings. That request was prompted by the banning of four reporters from military commissions for allegedly violating Pentagon rules. The Pentagon lifted the bans and rewrote its rules after news organizations complained that the bannings were illegal.

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, who oversees the war court, chose to use the new website to announce the Nashiri charges.

But it was unclear whether the website would prove to be as complete as news reporters had hoped. The Nashiri page, however, included only prosecution documents against Nashiri, the alleged al Qaeda chief of Arabian Sea operations. Conspicuously missing was a July 15 filing by Nashiri’s Pentagon defenders claiming that the case was too tainted by delay and CIA torture to go forward.

Nashiri is charged with directing the two suicide bombers who drove a bomb-laden skiff into the USS Cole in October 2000, killing 17 American sailors and crippling the $1.1 billion warship.

“It’s long overdue from my standpoint,” said John Clodfelter of Mechanicsville, Va., whose 21-year-old sailor son Kenneth was killed instantly in the ship’s bulkhead. “It’s just been unreal. Kenneth ... was tore up so horrifically.”

Nashiri is defended by U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Reyes who said the latest step signaled that it was now “time to see how transparent these trials will be.

“Item No. 1: What happened to my client in CIA custody?”

Some of that has already come out in congressional investigations and documents surfaced through the Freedom of Information Act: While at a secret CIA prison, an agent revved a power drill near the head of a naked, hooded Nashiri, who was also subjected to water boarding, a technique that Attorney General Eric Holder has called torture.

Pentagon lawyers and contractors have spent the summer readying the war court former President George W. Bush created and Barack Obama criticized as a senator then reformed as president. During the week of Sept. 11, MacDonald inspected Guantánamo’s crude tent city and maximum-security court, called Camp Justice.

The Nashiri case will be widely watched both within Navy circles and beyond as a test case of the new court. Pentagon lawyers are still preparing the for capital trial of five former CIA captives accused of conspiring in the Sept. 11 mass murder, chief among them confessed mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

The Cole capital case that MacDonald approved Wednesday included nine charges, from terrorism and murder as a war crime to treachery and attacking civilians. It also accuses Nashiri of a lesser known attack two years after the Cole bombing on a French oil tanker off the Yemen coast. A Bulgarian crewmember was killed.

Next, the chief war court judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, gets to assign a military judge to the case, if not himself, to formally charge Nashiri within a month at the war court at Guantánamo. It will be the Saudi-born Yemeni Nashiri’s first public appearance since he disappeared into CIA black site custody in November 2002.

The new website appeared on Wednesday morning without an announcement from the Secretary of Defense’s Public Affairs office, which has handled war court releases for the past six years.

Instead, a former Bush era Defense Department deputy responsible for detention issues broke the news on a Heritage Foundation blog. His headline: “Military Commissions Just Became More Transparent.”

It was the second Guantánamo revelation this week from the Obama Defense Department leaked in conservative circles. Sunday, The Weekly Standard included a profile of the new Obama era War Crimes Prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen Mark Martins, pledging to beam closed-circuit broadcasts of remote Guantánamo proceedings to both victims and media viewing centers on U.S. soil.

The Pentagon has declined to say whether they’ve established a viewing center for the Nashiri case in Norfolk, Va., the Cole’s homeport, nor whether media would watch proceedings alongside the victims or at a separate location.

Nashiri and the alleged 9/11 plotters got to Guantánamo in September 2006 and have been sequestered at a secret prison camp, which some members of Congress have inspected. The detention center commander, Rear Adm. David B. Woods, said earlier this month that the camps and compound were ready for trial although he had yet to receive an order to prepare or plan for an execution chamber.

It will be up to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to pick what method of death penalty the post-9/11 tribunals will employ.

Meantime, the Pentagon has assigned two military lawyers, Reyes and Air Force Maj. Allison Danels, to defend Nashiri. MacDonald has also approved the funding of veteran death penalty defender Richard Kammen of Indianapolis, a civilian. The Pentagon has assigned a federal prosecutor from Kansas, Anthony Mattivi, to prosecute the case as well as a Navy Lt. Cmdr. Andrea K. Lockhart.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune