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20 years after 9/11, mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed still awaits trial. What went wrong?

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GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — It should be the trial of the century, but most Americans long ago stopped paying attention.

Two decades after the 9/11 attacks and nine years after war crimes charges were filed, the pre-trial wrangling in the case against accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other defendants is scheduled to resume Tuesday after a long Covid shutdown. No trial date has been set, and none is anticipated any time soon.

Alka Pradhan, a civilian employee of the Defense Department who represents one of the five, called what’s happening here a “farce.” While other lawyers decline to go that far, nearly everyone seems to agree that the effort to bring these defendants to justice has gone badly off the rails.

“This failure is not on the people prosecuting, defending, or the judges involved,” said Kevin Powers, a national security expert at Boston College who once advised the Pentagon’s office of military commissions on Guantanamo issues. “It’s really the way the system was set up. And that’s what really people have to understand: The system is set up to fail.”

It was 15 years ago Monday that President George W. Bush announced the arrival of al Qaeda detainees at the Guantanamo prison, joining hundreds of other prisoners already held in this U.S. enclave. The reasons the wheels of justice are moving so slowly are many. It’s a logistical nightmare to travel here. The military commissions system set up for this trial was created from scratch in the Obama administration, so every rule can be a point of contention — and hours of litigation. There has been frequent turnover of judges and lawyers.

But the biggest factor in why it’s taking so long, defense lawyers and other experts say, is the secrecy. It took years for defense lawyers to get summaries of the classified evidence against their clients, and they say they still don’t have everything they need, even though they all possess Top Secret security clearances.

Inside the courtroom, journalists and family members must watch behind a wall of thick glass. The sound is piped in on a 40-second delay to guard against the defendants blurting out something classified, officials said. And what classified information might al Qaeda operatives possess?

Defense lawyers say there is one main reason so much here is shrouded in secrecy: The government is still trying to hide the details of what happened to the detainees who were held and tortured by the CIA in secret prisons before they were transferred to Guantanamo.

“Covering up torture is the reason that these men were brought to Guantanamo and the continuing cover-up of torture is the reason that indefinite detention at Guantanamo still exists,” said James Connell, a lawyer for Ammar al Baluchi, who, his lawyers say, was a model for the detainee who was tortured in one of the opening scenes of the film “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“The cover-up of torture is also the reason that we are all gathered at Guantanamo for the 42nd hearing in the 9/11 military commission on the 15th anniversary of the transfer of these men to Guantanamo.”

The prosecution has not granted interviews to the news media for years, longtime Guantanamo observers say, but said in a statement they were committed to a fair proceeding. In court papers, they have blamed the defense for the delays, noting that defense lawyers have filed motion after motion challenging huge swaths of evidence.

“The goal of the United States has been to afford fairness in reaching just outcomes to these cases,” the statement said. “Beyond that, the Department of Defense cannot speculate on matters related to the Commissions’ timeline.”

Experts say at the rate the case is proceeding, there could be another decade of procedural hearings.

“There’s the possibility of having no trial at all,” said Madeline Morris, a Duke law professor, who heads Guantanamo Defense Clinic, which assists defense counsel for military commissions.

“What we’ve been doing is to have, in essence, no trial at all…it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that there will be a trial.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times estimates that it costs taxpayers around $13 million per prisoner per year to operate the detention facility here, on a rocky coastline in a part of Cuba that the U.S. has occupied since the end of the Spanish-American war.

There are just 39 prisoners now, down from a height of nearly 700.

And while the Biden administration has said it wants to close the facility, a $15 million expansion is underway, officials here said, including the construction of a new courtroom and workspaces.

To get here Saturday, more than a hundred people boarded a military charter at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland at the crack of dawn — prosecutors, defense attorneys, FBI agents, military officials, relatives of victims and journalists — after taking a rapid Covid test. It was a full day of travel, underscoring the logistical difficulty of getting in and out.

After a status conference Sunday, it became clear that even less may happen this week than expected. A senior lawyer on one of the legal teams is absent for unspecified personal reasons, and it’s not clear that substantive arguments can proceed.

President Bush opened the detention center in 2002 as he launched what he called a War on Terror, with the idea of keeping so-called ‘enemy combatants’ there indefinitely. He filled it up, mixing low-level foot soldiers with terrorist masterminds, all held without charge.

Amid worldwide condemnation, his administration ended up releasing more than 500 captives, and granting the remaining prisoners access to lawyers. Many were sent back home or released to third countries without incident. About 17 percent have reengaged in terrorism, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Two former Guantanamo detainees surfaced last month in key roles with the Taliban as they took control of Afghanistan.

President Obama promised to close the prison, but failed, though he shrank the population further, to 41.

President Trump pledged to ‘load it up,’ with new inmates, but never did.

Stung by revelations of torture, the CIA and the military long ago stopped holding enemy combatants for more than a few days. The U.S. instead has relied on allies to jail those captured on the battlefield. Critics say it has become easier to kill terror suspects with drone strikes than for America to capture and hold them.

Charges against many of the remaining inmates may not be possible, experts say, either because the evidence is too sensitive or the torture they experienced has tainted the case beyond repair.

Meanwhile, the 9/11 defendants await justice. A plan to try them in New York City during the Obama administration blew up amid widespread political opposition.

“I have no doubt whatsoever that KSM is guilty,” said Terry McDermott, co-author of “The Hunt for KSM,” the definitive account of how the U.S. tracked down Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. “He’s admitted it himself over and over again. So this should have been a very straightforward, open and shut case. If they had done this in the Southern District of New York, where they’ve done 200 terrorism trials, the guy would have been in jail or executed 10 years ago. But if you’ve been to Guantanamo, you’ve seen the situation. The whole thing is ridiculous.”

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‘It’s going to be tough!’ Boris Johnson set to pressure Joe Biden on £70bn climate pledge

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BORIS Johnson will tell world leaders today that rich nations must stump up more money to help poorer countries slash carbon emissions.

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Democrats blocked from including immigration legalization in spending bill

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WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats hit a roadblock Sunday in their effort to slip an overhaul of the country’s immigration laws into a spending bill that can pass without Republican support, according to a document obtained by NBC News.

Democrats had hoped to include legislation that would grant a path to citizenship for an estimated 8 million undocumented people in their sweeping tax and spending bill. But their effort to circumvent the filibuster hit a roadblock.

Democrats sought to provide a pathway to citizenship for beneficiaries of the DACA program, farmworkers, essential workers who aided during the coronavirus pandemic and recipients of temporary protected status.

Getting immigration policy into the sweeping $3.5 trillion package has always been a long shot. Previous efforts to overhaul immigration laws have failed — even provisions that are popular, like providing a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded to the decision by promising to try again, saying Democrats would appeal to the nonpartisan parliamentarian, who decides which provisions are allowed in the spending bill.

“We are deeply disappointed in this decision but the fight to provide lawful status for immigrants in budget reconciliation continues. Senate Democrats have prepared alternate proposals and will be holding additional meetings with the Senate parliamentarian in the coming days,” he said in a statement.

Senate rules permit including provisions related only to taxing and spending in so-called reconciliation bills, which can pass the Senate with a simple majority, thus avoiding the 60-vote filibuster. Democrats could try to circumvent the parliamentarian, but doing so would be unusual, and it is unlikely.

The parliamentarian argued that the proposed changes to immigration law are “policy changes” and that the budget impact was only incidental, saying it was “not appropriate for inclusion in reconciliation.”

“Changing the law to clear the way to LPR [lawful permanent resident] status is tremendous and enduring policy change that dwarfs its budgetary impact,” the parliamentarian said.

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed.

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‘Only temporary!’ Boris abates fears UK will be hit by meat shortages as gas prices surge

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BORIS Johnson last night allayed fears that the UK would be hit by meat shortages because of the rising cost of gas.

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