Sept. 11 plotter turns tables on judge

Times Staff Writer

The world’s most notorious jailed terrorist calmly stroked a foot-long gray beard as he sat comfortably in a military courtroom and peppered the Marine colonel who serves as his judge with questions.

What, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed demanded to know, were Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann’s religious affiliations? His views on torture?

For a while Tuesday, Mohammed turned the tables on his captors and made the military judge justify his competency to preside over the trial of five accused Sept. 11 plotters.

Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the suicide hijackings, spent more than an hour putting Kohlmann through his paces in the high-tech, high-security courtroom that the Pentagon built on the naval base here for the controversial war tribunals.


Glaring and poking an occasional finger in the air, Mohammed demanded that the judge explain his views on such hot-button issues as religion and torture. He was frequently unsatisfied, and hit Kohlmann with a barrage of follow-up questions and sarcastic political commentary before the judge threatened to revoke Mohammed’s court authorization to act as his own lawyer in the case.

But before that, the former Al Qaeda operations chief, now paunchy, bespectacled and wearing flowing robes and a black turban, had the run of the courtroom. He was conducting the voir dire process that is designed to allow the defense to examine a judge’s competence and impartiality. Lawyers for the other defendants quizzed the judge too. But even if they were to determine that the judge should be replaced, Kohlmann could overrule them. In that event, the defendants could appeal to a higher military court.

Throughout Mohammed’s questioning, and during the rest of the day’s marathon legal proceedings, he sat behind the first of five massive tables, one for each of the accused men’s legal teams, his position befitting his status as the de facto courtroom leader and spokesman for the group. At one point he demanded that the judge explain how he could ensure a fair trial, both as a Christian and a member of a U.S. military that has declared war on Al Qaeda.

“The government considers all of us fanatical extremists,” Mohammed said. “How can you, as an officer of the U.S. Marine Corps, stand over me in judgment?”

Mohammed, 43, also asked Kohlmann whether he was part of an American “extremist sect” such as those led by Christian evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. And he wanted to know the details of Kohlmann’s Marine training and his knowledge of waterboarding and other coercive interrogation tactics that the CIA has admitted using on him after capturing Mohammed in Pakistan in 2003.

At first, Kohlmann gamely answered the questions. He said he is not particularly religious despite attending some Lutheran and Episcopal services in the past. And he explained that the line between acceptable interrogation and torture is impossible to quantify without seeing the details.

Interspersed among Mohammed’s questions were increasingly rambling political statements about U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prejudice of Christians and Jews against Islam, and even the writings of Richard Nixon. Some comments prompted a government censor to cut off his microphone, citing national security concerns. The judge eventually lost patience.

“I will not allow you to act in a manner that is disrespectful to this court. . . . Do you understand me clearly?” Kohlmann said.

Mohammed’s comments, combined with other courtroom developments Tuesday, suggested that the highly anticipated case will only get more contentious, complicated and drawn out now that pretrial motions are underway.

Kohlmann disclosed that he has submitted his retirement papers for next spring, prompting one defense lawyer, Maj. Jon Jackson, to say that the judge will throw the trial into disarray by leaving before it starts.

Another defendant, Ramzi Binalshibh, appeared in court a day after refusing to do so. He told Kohlmann that he wants to act as his own lawyer, like Mohammed and two other defendants, despite his lawyers’ suggestions that he is mentally incompetent.

And a parade of defense lawyers and the defendants themselves told the judge about another long list of problems that they said will make it impossible to get a fair trial.

Lawyer-client conversations may not be confidential, they said, and the court translators are incompetent, a severe hindrance for defendants who don’t speak English.

Perhaps most dire, they told Kohlmann, were indications that the lawyers cannot talk to friends and family of the accused as part of their defense preparation without prosecutors finding out about it, which has scared off potential witnesses on their behalf.

“Today was more evidence of chaos,” said Jackson, a lawyer for Mohammed’s alleged moneyman, Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi. “It shows that despite hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, the system is not functioning.”