GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — When 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed appears before the military commission trying him for war crimes, his day starts early, with a lawyer arriving at his cell around 5 a.m.
Each morning, Mohammed is reminded of his right to attend the proceedings in which he faces conspiracy charges related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000. In the most recent hearings, he opted to attend.
There has been a running debate in Washington for more than a decade over what to do with suspected terrorists. Some, like the recently captured Abu Anas al Libi, will be tried in a U.S. civilian court. But others, including Mohammed, are being tried at Guantanamo Bay in proceedings that leave little doubt that the U.S. military justice system will decide their fate.
For hearings, Mohammed is brought to Camp Justice, a specially named corner of the U.S. naval base in Cuba. Armed guards escort him to the fenced-off Expeditionary Legal Complex, a $12 million building whose name suggests that the proceedings could be moved anywhere, however unlikely that is.
To reach his seat in the courtroom by the 9 a.m. start, Mohammed is led through a set of gates and into a small shed for a full body scan to check for weapons. His guards then guide him to a series of trailers. Mohammed is being tried with four co-defendants and each has a trailer that serves as a personal temporary holding area.
The trailers have beds and there's a television showing the court's proceedings. On the floor of each trailer is a green arrow, pointing toward Mecca to accommodate daily prayers.
Sometime after 8 a.m., Mohammed is finally led from his trailer through a long, narrow corridor lined with chain-link fencing and shaded by black sniper netting. If he refuses to walk on his own, he could be strapped into one of the nearby wheelchairs with attached restraints.
Inside the courtroom are six rows of tables, with push-to-talk microphones on each. The gallery for observers, mainly lawyers and reporters, is separated from the courtroom by glass, and those inside hear the proceedings with a 40-second audio delay in case classified information is mentioned in court.
Mohammed often passes the time with his "e-reader," a U.S.-provided laptop stripped of most capabilities, and a camouflage jacket that he fought for permission to wear in court.
President Obama pledged during his 2008 campaign to close the Guantanamo Bay facility, where scores of suspected terrorists are held indefinitely. He signed an executive order on Jan. 22, 2009, that was intended to do just that. But nearly five years later, the facility still houses more than 160 detainees at an annual cost of about $450 million.
Congress blocked Obama's attempt to close the facility and bring the detainees to the United States for trial. And Obama himself halted the transfer of cleared detainees to Yemen after al Qaeda forces inside the country were caught plotting the bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009.
But the president signaled that he still intends to close the detention facilities. He recently appointed attorney Paul Lewis as his point man on Gitmo closure, a move that could pump fresh energy into the fight to close a facility about which even the Pentagon has second thoughts.
"The detention facility is inefficient, it is wildly expensive, is kept open outside our nation's best interests, and is not a mission that the Department [of Defense] solicited," said Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman. "However, until the laws are changed to allow for its closure, we will continue to humanely safeguard the detainees in our charge."