A Guantanamo Bay prisoner charged in the Sept. 11 attacks fired one of his military attorneys Monday in an apparent sign of distrust of his Pentagon-appointed legal counsel.
Waleed bin Attash at first refused to speak when questioned by the judge about his desire to dismiss one of his three lawyers, Marine Corps Maj. William Hennessy. He hinted at his motivation later in an exchange with the judge about whether he wished to attend future sessions of the court.
"We have been dealing with our attorneys for about a year and a half and we have not been able to get any trust with them," the Yemeni said through an Arabic translator.
The dismissal of the attorney came at the start of what is expected to be a four-day hearing to address a wide range of often abstract pretrial legal issues.
Bin Attash is one of the lesser figures among the five defendants in the Sept. 11 case. He allegedly ran an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan where two of the 19 hijackers in the terrorist attacks trained. He is also believed to have been a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.
Defendants in the military tribunal have civilian counsel in addition to military lawyers. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has portrayed himself as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, added an additional death penalty specialist, California lawyer Gary Sowards, to his team Monday.
The lawyer ousted by bin Attash said in an interview outside court that he is prohibited from discussing the details of his conversations with the defendant. But he said there was no specific incident that precipitated his dismissal.
"It had nothing to do with substance, nothing to do with my work on the team, no disagreements over anything," he said.
Instead, he said the move was sparked by the defendant's distrust of the military tribunals. He said all five defendants generally distrust the military attorneys appointed to represent them.
"It's not a surprise if one of us gets released," he said. "It's understood that there is a sense of 'I'll use you but don't get too comfortable.' ... For all of us on the defense teams it's day to day."
Cheryl Bormann, the civilian lawyer for bin Attash, said the ability to build a relationship with him has been hampered by the inconvenience of traveling to the U.S. base in Cuba and security rules that include requirements that all written communications with the defendants be monitored in what she says is a violation of the attorney-client privilege.
"Clearly, the ongoing interference ... with the attorney-client privilege has caused harm and he expressed that," she said outside court.
Most of the hearing Monday, in both open court and in a separate closed session, focused on arguments over the rules for handling classified evidence in a case considered one of the most significant terrorism prosecutions in U.S. history.
At one point, as a lawyer for Mohammed was discussing a motion to preserve the clandestine CIA prisons as evidence, part of a defense move to prove their clients were tortured, a courtroom monitor turned on a white noise machine, preventing spectators from hearing the proceedings.
The five defendants face charges that include nearly 3,000 counts of murder for their alleged roles in planning and aiding the Sept. 11 attacks. They could get the death penalty if convicted in a trial that is likely at least a year away.