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9/11 trial: Did US have improper influence? Lawyer asks judge for help.

A defense lawyer in the 9/11 war crimes trial tells a judge that a top prosecutor, asked if there had been improper influence by Defense Department or administration officials, refused to answer at least 25 times.

By Staff writer / October 19, 2012

In this photo of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin and reviewed by the US Department of Defense, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed speaks with lawyer and U.S. Marine Corps Major Derek Poteet, a member of his legal team, while wearing a camouflage vest during the third day of the Military Commissions pretrial hearing against the five Guantanamo prisoners accused of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Wednesday

Janet Hamlin/AP/Pool

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Forte Meade, Md.

A defense lawyer in the 9/11 war crimes tribunal at Guantánamo told a military judge on Friday that the former chief prosecutor for military commissions refused at least 25 times to answer his questions about whether there had been any improper influence from senior Defense Department or Obama administration officials in bringing war crimes charges against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others.

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The lawyer, US Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, said he interviewed Navy Capt. John Murphy while trying to investigate the possibility that senior government officials attempted to exert pressure in the case.

Captain Murphy invoked a special privilege against answering questions dealing with internal government deliberations, Commander Ruiz said. He invoked it 25 to 30 times, Ruiz said.

“One of the things I asked was who else was in the room,” he said.

Ruiz said he asked Murphy if he had contact with the general counsel of the Defense Department. “They raised the privilege on those issues” as well, Ruiz added.

The comments came on the last of five days of pretrial hearings designed to iron out pending legal issues in advance of the expected war crimes tribunal at Guantánamo. No trial date has been set.

Command influence is a thorny issue in military courts given the fact that all parties in the court – the judge, the jury, the prosecutors, and many of the defense lawyers – all work for the Department of Defense and function within a chain of command. Ruiz was asking the judge, US Army Col. James Pohl, to intervene on his behalf to help him investigate the improper influence claim.

Defense lawyers have filed a motion seeking dismissal of the charges against Mohammed and his four co-defendants because they claim that public statements by President Bush, President Obama, and other senior government officials have made it impossible for the defendants to receive a fair trial.

Government lawyers opposed the defense motion, denying that the case has been tainted by command influence. They suggest that defense lawyers have no evidence of wrongdoing.

“The defense is not entitled to go on a fishing expedition,” said Army Major Robert McGovern, a member of the prosecution team.

Judge Pohl did not rule on the issue.

Also on Friday, defense lawyers asked Judge Pohl to permit greater public access to close-circuit broadcasts of the Guantánamo proceedings. The defense even asked that the video-feed from Guantánamo be provided to broadcast companies such as C-Span to transmit nationwide.

Government lawyers argued against the proposals. They said the current system offering public and media access to a video-feed at Fort Meade, Md., satisfied constitutional requirements of public access.

“The government’s position is that the First Amendment right to access is not absolute,” Navy Lt. Kiersten Korczynki told the court.

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