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Settlement talks are faltering in the Sept. 11 terrorism case

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the 22 years since the September 11 attacks, as remarkable as it may seem, no one has been put on trial. A breakthrough seemed to happen last year when settlement talks began with the five men accused of plotting the attack, but now government prosecutors say they will quit negotiating unless the defense offers to settle today. NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer is here with us to tell us more about just how real that deadline is. Sacha, good morning.

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So how real is it?

PFEIFFER: Probably not very. The background is that so far, the effort to have a 9/11 death penalty trial has been a complete failure. That's partly because it's happening at the U.S. military court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a logistical nightmare. And by the way, Michel, as you and I have talked about, these five accused men, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, have been held at Guantanamo for nearly 20 years now. The trial delay is also because the five accused men were tortured, which creates huge legal problems. So settlement talks started a year and a half ago as an alternative resolution. The goal was the defendants plead guilty and get life in prison. But those talks are stalled until the Biden administration weighs in on issues like where they would serve their sentences. So one Guantanamo defense attorney, James Connell, who represents a man named Ammar al-Baluchi, told me this.

JAMES CONNELL: For Mr. al-Baluchi, there is essentially no chance that there'll be a plea deal by Friday.

PFEIFFER: I asked for a comment from the offices that oversee all the Guantanamo defense lawyers and prosecutors, but they didn't respond. Even though in the highly unlikely event that a signed plea offer were made today, it would still have to be approved by higher-level officials. So no one I've talked to in the Guantanamo community believes the 9/11 case could be wrapped up today.

MARTIN: So, Sacha, you've been reporting on this for quite some time, like, all aspects of this. So what do the families of 9/11 victims think about this?

PFEIFFER: You know, a range of views, obviously. Many do support plea deals because they see the dysfunction at Guantanamo, and they doubt a trial will ever happen. Even if it does, they worry it would be appealed or a verdict overturned. So a settlement would end years of waiting. One supporter is Elizabeth Miller. Her dad was a Staten Island firefighter who died on 9/11.

ELIZABETH MILLER: My fear is that if we don't pursue plea deals and if the Biden administration doesn't put their full support behind this - I am 28 years old, turning 29 - I'm going to be doing this advocacy until I'm 50-plus years old.

MARTIN: As you said, there's a range of views, and I assume that there are people who want the defendants put to death. What about them?

PFEIFFER: Yes, certainly many people want that. And in fact, last week, about 2,000 9/11 victims and family members signed a letter to President Biden expressing concern about plea deals. But one of the organizers of that signature campaign told me his concern is not about abandoning the death penalty. It's that not having a trial would be a lost opportunity. That's Brett Eagleson. He was 15 when his father died in the World Trade Center collapse. And he surprised me, considering that he's helping lead a campaign against plea deals by saying this.

BRETT EAGLESON: I think plea deals will probably likely happen. And I think that under the right conditions, plea deals would help the broader 9/11 community in our pursuit of justice.

MARTIN: And when he says under the right conditions, what does he mean?

PFEIFFER: He says that a stipulation of a plea agreement should be that the defendants have to share more information about how they carried out the attacks. Here's how he put it.

EAGLESON: I think that there is some sort of a happy medium where we can take the death penalty off the table. But the condition would be that these individuals need to talk to our lawyers.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, if the plea deals don't happen, will the government keep trying to take the 9/11 case to trial?

PFEIFFER: Yes, but that means more pretrial hearings, which have been going on for a decade. And those hearings could get even more bogged down because of two recent Guantanamo curveballs. First, one of the 9/11 defendants has been found mentally incompetent to stand trial or plead guilty. And the second twist involves a ruling in a different Guantanamo case, the USS Cole warship bombing from all the way back in October 2000. That one is also still dragging along. And that judge recently threw out a confession because the defendant was tortured. That could be bad news for 9/11 prosecutors, since their case also involves allegedly forced confessions. So don't expect a 9/11 trial anytime soon, if ever.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer. Sacha, thank you.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.