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A year after plea talks began, the 9/11 case is still in limbo, frustrating families

Dion MBD for NPR
More than two decades after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, the five men accused have still not gone to trial, and four presidential administrations have wrestled with the Guantánamo problem.

Listen to the Story (00:04:27)



A year ago, there had seemed to be a breakthrough in the biggest unresolved terrorism case in the United States: Settlement talks began for the five men accused in the 9/11 attacks.

The goal was for the defendants, including alleged ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to plead guilty and spend up to life in prison. They would avoid a death penalty trial, but the problem-plagued case would finally end. The 9/11 judge backed the effort, canceling all public hearings for the past 12 months so lawyers could focus on negotiating.

Yet the talks are in limbo. And that has family members of 9/11 victims — who have been waiting more than two decades for the case to go to trial — in a familiar state of frustration.

"I would like this resolved in my lifetime," said Adele Welty, who was 65 years old when her son, a New York City firefighter, responded to a call on Sept. 11, 2001, that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center, and never came home again. Welty is now 86.

"I don't see it as a need for revenge," Welty said, "but there needs to be accountability."

Settlement negotiations at the U.S. military court in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are at an impasse until the Biden administration addresses several key issues, including where the prisoners would serve their sentences and what health care they would receive for injuries from torture.

These "policy principles" involve decision makers at the White House and several government agencies, including the Defense and Justice departments, CIA, and National Security Council.

Still, "there's no reason, after ten-plus months, that these questions couldn't and shouldn't be answered by the higher-ups in the administration," said Scott Roehm, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Center for Victims of Torture.

"The ball is in the administration's court," he added. "They aren't easy questions, but they're certainly answerable on a much shorter timeline than we've seen so far — and there isn't a lot of evidence to date that there's a real sense of urgency to get them answered."

President Biden has been publicly silent about the settlement talks. His current focus at Guantánamo appears to be releasing prisoners unrelated to the 9/11 case who have never been criminally charged and are cleared to leave; that's the status of 17 of the 31 remaining men. Cumulatively, about 780 prisoners have passed through Guantánamo since 2002.

Before these prisoners can be released, the U.S. must find countries willing to accept them, which is a complicated process. Some Guantánamo inmates — the so-called forever prisoners — have been approved for release for more than a decade but are still being held.

Yet in roughly the past month, Biden has released four Guantánamo prisoners. One was sent to Belize, one to Saudi Arabia, and two to Pakistan. That suggests that his administration is ramping up its efforts to negotiate prisoner transfers.

Yet at the same time, settlement talks in the 9/11 case, which began in March 2022, drag on with little forward motion.

"We're just waiting," said Alka Pradhan, who represents one of the 9-11 defendants, Ammar al-Baluchi. "Until we get a go-ahead that the agencies even want to continue with plea negotiations, everything is stuck."

"I hoped for answers more quickly than we have received them," said James Connell, another lawyer for al-Baluchi.

"I never in a million years thought I'd be here as long as I've been," added Walter Ruiz, who has represented 9/11 defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi for nearly 14 years.

Asked to describe the status of the talks, Ruiz said: "There continues to be ongoing dialogue, so I consider that in and of itself positive progress, but I can tell you there has been no concrete agreement for anything at this time."

That's despite several former top government officials who once advocated for a 9/11 trial now pushing for plea deals. They include former solicitor general Ted Olson, whose wife Barbara died in one of the hijacked planes. He recently said the military court was " doomed from the start." And in his memoir, One Damn Thing After Another, former U.S. Attorney General William Barr calls Guantánamo — whose court and prison have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $6 billion since 2002 — a "hopeless mess."

Roehm, of the Center for Victims of Torture, noted that U.S. federal courts have successfully prosecuted hundreds of terrorism cases. But he said moving the 9/11 case from the military court to federal court at this point is a practical and legal impossibility, in part because a law prevents Guantánamo prisoners from entering the U.S. for any reason.

"The 9/11 case is not going to trial in the military commissions, it is not remotely close to that, and it never will be," Roehm said. "So for anyone who objects to resolving the case with a plea agreement, I'd ask them: What's the alternative?

"A plea isn't just the least-worst option for resolving the case," he added. "It's the only remaining option."

Glenn Morgan, 60, whose father died in the World Trade Center collapse, has reached a similar conclusion. He wants the 9/11 defendants put to death. But after two decades of political logjam at Guantánamo – including lawyers and judges coming and going, one new attorney asking for three years to prepare, and one judge quitting after two weeks — he says he would settle for a plea deal.

"I don't know whether the Republicans and the Democrats will be able to come to a resolution," Morgan said, noting that his mother died about four years after his father's death. "But more people in my family have passed away, and those people have not seen a guilty verdict for these individuals responsible for killing my dad...so the clock is ticking."

And the longer the 9/11 case goes on, the more he worries the defendants themselves will die without being found guilty.

"That would be so much more tragic than a plea agreement," Morgan said, "and that's a tragedy that's just completely avoidable. And shame on us if we as Americans, or our politicians, can't get out of our own effing way."

The White House did not respond to an email requesting comment. Guantánamo prosecutors declined to comment, saying they wanted to "refrain from making any public statement that could prejudice or adversely impact the judicial proceedings." The Defense Department told NPR it "cannot comment on matters in litigation" but noted that "it is anticipated that these [settlement] discussions will continue for some time."

But for Adele Welty, the woman whose son died in the attacks, even the possibility of an eventual settlement leaves her "elated" after so many years of waiting.

"Time does not heal all wounds; it just covers over the wounds and forms a scab that can be picked off at any time," Welty said. Still, she added, "life in prison with no chance of parole is justice, in my view."

This story was edited by Meg Anderson and Barrie Hardymon and produced by Meg Anderson. Photo editing and art direction by Emily Bogle.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.