DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The man who claims to have orchestrated the September 11th attacks is expected to appear in a military courtroom today. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men are supposed to answer formal charges related to their roles in the plot. Their arraignment will be at Guantanamo Bay. And it is the first step that leads - possibly years from now - to a military trial. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known as KSM, has admitted to masterminding the September 11th attacks. Still, there are indications that he and his alleged four co-conspirators will plead not guilty. And that could mean a public airing of how he was treated in U.S. custody, details the government would rather not talk about. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was in court about five years ago. The hearing was captured on tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF COURT HEARING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All rise. This tribunal will determine whether Khalid Sheikh Mohammed meets the criteria to be designated as an enemy combatant against the United States or its coalition partners.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This was a hearing to prove that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed still needed to be held at Guantanamo, that he still posed a threat to the U.S. as an enemy combatant. Again, this was in 2007, and KSM was fully engaged and actually addressed the court. In one instance, he objected to a particular piece of evidence. He said a computer hard drive that was being used against him wasn't his at all. He explained that it belonged to another detainee, a man named Mustafa al-Hawsawi. This is KSM speaking, in broken English, at that 2007 hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF COURT HEARING)

KHALID SHEIKH MOHAMMED: This computer is not for me, for Hawsawi himself. But me and him, we both be arrested the same day, same way. So, this computer, it was for him for a long time. The problem is we are not in the court, and you are not judge, and he's not my lawyer.

TEMPLE-RASTON: After a long session of grousing about the proceedings, Mohammed did an about-face. He asked his personal representative at the hearing, a kind of lawyer, to read a statement for him in which he admitted to everything and more.

(SOUNDBITE OF COURT HEARING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: According to the detainee, quote, "I hereby admit and affirm, without duress, to the following: I swore bayat, meaning allegiance, to Sheikh Osama bin Laden. I was the media operations director for - I was the operational director for Sheikh Osama bin Laden for the organizing, planning, follow-up and execution of the 911 operation. I was the military operational commander.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He took credit for the 1993 attack against the World Trade Center. He said he personally beheaded Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in 2002. The list went on and on. His representative spent, literally, six minutes listing all the plots. KSM seemed to be presenting himself as the father of Islamic Terrorism against the West, as the leader of a revolution to free Muslims.

TERRY MCDERMOTT: He likened himself, at that confession, to George Washington.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Terry McDermott is one of the authors of a new book called "The Hunt for KSM." He has spent more than a decade tracking Mohammed through Dubai and Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he says that KSM made himself indispensable to al-Qaida.

MCDERMOTT: Al-Qaida was up to bad things with or without him, but a lot of the stuff we know that al-Qaida did would not have happened had it not been for him, and I think he wanted the world to know that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Which is why even though KSM has admitted to all of these plots, there's a chance that he will plead not guilty at his arraignment. That would force the U.S. reveal evidence it has against him and give KSM's defense the opportunity to describe CIA interrogations. The CIA has admitted to waterboarding three al-Qaida prisoners. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is one of them. And another is Ramzi bin al-Shibh, another defendant in the 9-11 trial. Karen Greenberg is the executive director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University. She says if KSM and the others plead not guilty, torture will become a centerpiece of the trial.

KAREN GREENBERG: When it comes to his confessions, they will say that whatever he confessed to happened after he was tortured, and that whatever he says, it's either because he still fears some sort of torture, or probably more from a psychological point of view that he has some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And to make that argument, there will have to be testimony about the CIA's aggressive interrogations. So far, only the sketchiest of details about those episodes have been released. The rest is classified. First-person accounts of torture, if they're heard at trial, could be explosive and put KSM where he likes to be: back on center-stage. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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