A Saudi national accused of masterminding the USS Cole bombing in 2000 in Yemen appeared Tuesday at a Guantanamo military tribunal expected to set a trial date in the case.
The case against Saudi-born Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri is the first since U.S. President Barack Obama reversed course and ordered controversial military trials to resume at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba.
In the hearing set to continue into Wednesday, military judge James Pohl began considering motions from defense and prosecution attorneys, notably on monitoring of email exchanges with defense lawyers and the classification of defense secrets in the case.
Base commander Rear Admiral David Woods testified on the recent order he gave for mail between detainees and their attorneys to be monitored systematically.
Woods said “privileged” correspondence was not read but rather under “review to ensure there’s no contraband.”
“How can they look for contraband information since they don’t read the mail?” asked one of the defense attorneys, Stephen Reyes, after the order was signed Dec. 27.
“How do you know the team doesn't read the mail,” asked Judge Pohl.
“That’s my order,” Woods countered.
The issue really was to determine if the mail contains “physical material contraband... (or) information contraband,” argued deputy prosecutor Andrea Lockhart.
Asked about Washington’s legal authority to prosecute Nashiri, a Pentagon official said the United States had invoked its Military Commission Act and as well as international law.
Those principles “give the U.S. universal jurisdiction” over alien foes, said Defense Department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale.
“An oil tanker is attacked. It’s impacting our own economy and potentially the global economy,” he said.
The judge agreed to a defense motion to hear testimony from the prison commander on the methods by which personnel monitor Nashiri’s communication with lawyers.
U.S. military officials have ordered that the Saudi man’s letters and email correspondence be systematically reviewed, which his attorneys have challenged.
But Reyes conceded Tuesday that the presiding judge in the case “is the final arbitrator on what actually constitutes legal mail.”
Nashiri, dressed throughout the proceedings in customary white prison garb, could face the death penalty if convicted of planning and preparing the October 2000 attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer in Yemen’s port of Aden.
Militants riding an explosives-laden skiff blew a 30-foot by 30-foot (10-m by 10m) hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors and wounding 40 more.
He is also accused of involvement in an attempted attack against another American warship in Aden, the USS The Sullivans, in January 2000.
U.S. military prosecutors also accuse Nashiri of planning an attack on a French civilian oil tanker MV Limburg in the Gulf of Aden in 2002 that left one Bulgarian crew member dead and caused a 90,000 barrel oil spill.
The hearing is expected to last through Wednesday.