GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- On the eve of the United States' first Guantanamo war crimes trial, defense lawyers have won long-sought permission to question potential witnesses including the alleged September 11 mastermind after a military judge threatened to delay the trial.
The chief prosecutor of the war crimes tribunals said a lawyer for Osama bin Laden's former driver, Salim Hamdan, would get access to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other "high-value" detainees at the high-security prison camp in Cuba.
"We've come to the point where the government needs to move," Judge Keith Allred, a Navy captain, said after prosecutors warned that security concerns might hamper efforts to arrange for a lawyer to question Mohammed before the start of trial on July 21.
"I'll continue [postpone] the trial. You can send your witnesses home," Allred warned sternly. "It'll cost you an awful lot of money."
"We'll solve it. We will be in trial," the chief prosecutor, Colonel Lawrence Morris, said. "We will comply with the judge's direction."
Hamdan's lawyers said they had been asking to question the prisoners for seven months and criticized the delay that prosecutors have blamed on national security concerns.
The apparent resolution to a long-running standoff came less than three days before Hamdan is scheduled to become the first prisoner tried in the war crimes court set up by the Bush administration for terrorism suspects after the September 2001 attacks.
Hamdan, a Yemeni in his late 30s, is charged with conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists. He faces life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors say he was a member of Al-Qaeda's inner circle while defense lawyers argue he was just a driver and mechanic in bin Laden's motor pool.
The defense plans to call Mohammed, the alleged architect of the hijacked airliner attacks on the United States, as a witness to elaborate on a claim made by prosecutors that Hamdan was on a mission for Mohammed in Afghanistan when the driver was captured in November 2001.
Defense lawyers say the "mission" was the evacuation of women and children, including Hamdan's own wife and daughter, from Kandahar, a Taliban and Al-Qaeda stronghold.
Prosecutors have alleged Hamdan had two surface-to-air missiles in his car and was en route to a battlefield when he was caught.
In addition to Mohammed, the defense wants to question fellow September 11 suspect Walid bin Attash and six other detainees at the Guantanamo prison.
Allred made clear in a previous hearing that he believed Mohammed and others could have evidence that would favor Hamdan and should testify. He told lawyers for the two sides to work out the logistics.
Because every word uttered by Mohammed is deemed a national security secret, prosecutors pushed for a videotaped deposition rather than a live appearance in court. "We don't know what will come out of their mouths when they are in open court," prosecutor Clayton Trivett said.
Defense lawyers want him to testify in court and to interview him this weekend so they know what he will say.
They say they have been denied access to the only witnesses who can shed light on Hamdan's claim that he was not a member of Al-Qaeda or any broad terrorist conspiracy, as the government has alleged.
"They are the people who can validate, substantiate Mr. Hamdan's story," defense lawyer Charles Swift said.