MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today, at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, yet another round of pretrial war court hearings gets underway. Putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks on trial is proving far easier said than done. The death penalty trial of the 9/11 defendants could still be years away from actually starting. NPR's David Welna is at Guantanamo today, and he's on the line now. Good morning, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Good morning, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Byway of backdrop, am I right in thinking that the U.S. government has been trying to put these men on trial for eight years?
WELNA: Yes, you're right. But, you know, that was only after these men had been held for years in secret CIA prisons known as black sites, where, according to a massive Senate Intelligence Committee study, they were tortured. And that's proved to be a major complication for the government both in the failed attempt at a military trial under President George W. Bush and again in the so-called military commissions proceedings that have been going on here for nearly four years.
KELLY: And so the fear is that the way that these men were treated while in CIA custody will complicate a future trial.
WELNA: Yes, and the very fact that that torture took place is something the prosecution wants to keep out of the trial. Military prosecutors fear that national security secrets could be spilled in the courtroom if torture comes up. And also the lawyers defending these five men believe they could be spared execution if it's shown that orders to torture came from the highest levels. So the defense has been filing thousands of pretrial motions, many of them related to obtaining government documents and witnesses linked to that torture.
KELLY: Have you been able to speak with any of the prosecutors, David, and get their sense of just why this is taking so long?
WELNA: I have, and I think, you know, they're generally more concerned about protecting government secrets in this case than they are about speeding things up. I asked Gen. Mark Martins, who's the chief prosecutor, why it's taking so long.
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MARK MARTINS: This is a process that is working its way through some hotly contested issues, and it's going to yield a fair result. And in the meantime, these individuals are securely and humanely detained under the law of armed conflict.
WELNA: And I should add that these men are at a secret detention camp where only those who spent time in the CIA's black site prisons are held, a camp which we journalists have never been allowed to see.
KELLY: David, just quickly, any estimate on when this trial might actually get underway?
WELNA: Well, chief prosecutor Martins won't even guess when, but Jay Connell, who's one of the government paid defense lawyers, predicts it could be the year 2021.
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JAY CONNELL: But in order for it to happen earlier, the government would have to start turning over the information about torture and black sites. Right now that is the key obstacle in the case.
WELNA: Connell says the government could remove the legal roadblocks instantly by backing up a truck to a secure facility and dropping off the 6.3 million classified documents that were used in the Senate report on CIA detention and interrogation, but that's not likely to happen.
KELLY: OK, thank you, David.
WELNA: You're welcome.
KELLY: NPR's David Welna speaking to us from Guantanamo Bay where 91 prisoners are still being held.
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