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Sept. 11 families to Biden: Do more

09/05/2023 05:11 PM EDT

On the eve of another somber anniversary, those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks — or as a result of exposure or injuries resulting from responding to its aftermath — are on edge.

Compounding their pain has been news that the government is nearing possible plea agreements with five suspected 9/11 terrorists still imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

It’s a subject we wrote about last month when a group of more than 2,000 family members of 9/11 victims urged President JOE BIDEN to scuttle any deals. Days after that piece, 34 members of Congress (all Republicans, save one) wrote Biden a similar letter, calling potential agreements to spare KHALID SHEIKH MOHAMMED and other alleged Sept. 11 plotters from the death penalty “unconscionable.”

At issue is the way news of the potential deals was disseminated. The White House didn’t notify some 9/11 families last month of the possible plea agreements. That came from the Pentagon office overseeing the judicial process for the remaining 9/11 detainees.

“The way the letter was sent to only a few families, it made it sound like it was a fait accompli,” said TROY ROSASCO, an attorney who has helped scores of 9/11 families with victim compensation claims. “This is a public policy decision that goes well beyond the Pentagon. We need leadership here from President Biden to say we need to hold the 9/11 terrorists accountable.”

The White House referred us back to its statement last month, noting that the president was not informed of any decisions by the Office of the Chief Prosecutor for Military Commissions related to the resolution of 9/11 cases. It also said Biden’s commitment to justice for affected families hasn’t changed.

If there is anything that nearly all 9/11 families agree on, it’s that the military’s process for delivering justice to those responsible for the attacks has taken far too long. But feelings differ on what should happen now.

At a December 2021 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the future of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, former Brig. Gen. JOHN BAKER, who spent six years overseeing the facility as chief defense counsel for military commissions, said it would behoove the government to bring ongoing cases to “as rapid a conclusion as possible.”

“Notice I don’t say as just a conclusion as possible. It is too late in the process for the current military commissions to do justice for anyone,” he said, calling the proceedings a “failed experiment” that had only resulted in one final conviction.

TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER, who lost her sister in the North Tower, agrees with Baker, mostly based on her own experiences of traveling to Guantanamo over the past decade. A founding member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, she and other members of the NGO have been allowed to observe the military trials that have taken place.

She was there in 2021 when MAJID KHAN, who worked as a courier for al Qaeda, detailed his brutal torture for three years at CIA “black sites” overseas. And she noted that just last month, a military judge at Guantanamo threw out confessions made by ABD AL-RAHIM AL-NASHIRI, the Saudi defendant accused of organizing the deadly 2000 bombing against the USS Cole in Yemen. The confessions, the judge said, were obtained by using torture.

“These guys were all tortured,” Rockefeller said in an interview. “And our government has a huge interest in preventing a lot of information from coming out.”

Rockefeller said she wants to learn more about the attacks. But much of that information remains classified, despite Biden’s 2021 executive order directing more 9/11 information be made public.

“I don’t think it will come out at a trial in the military commissions,” she said. “We’ve just begun the 12th year of pre-trial hearings. There’s a reason that the trial isn’t starting, and it’s because it probably never will.”

Plea agreements with the 9/11 plotters could extract some new information, and would likely ensure that, while they won’t be executed, they won’t receive clemency either (as al-Nashiri did). But that’s not enough for some family members.

Rosasco said many of his clients are frustrated and “simply don’t feel like the government cares to listen to their input on what happens to the terrorists,” he said. “They think the government has mishandled this for so long that there are some people who believe we should just put this behind us. No one can put behind the fact that their loved ones are no longer here.

“The question 9/11 victims have is: Can the government handle the truth? So far, I don’t think the government is willing to be truly exposed. Are we really going to hide from the truth in order to not hold terrorists accountable?”

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