GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- The alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and four co-defendants told a military judge Monday they want to immediately confess at their war-crimes tribunal, setting up likely guilty pleas and their possible executions.
The five said they decided on Nov. 4, the day President-elect Barack Obama was elected to the White House, to abandon all defenses against the capital charges. It was as if they wanted to rush toward convictions before the inauguration of Obama, who has vowed to end the war-crimes trials and close Guantanamo.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and two others said they would postpone entering pleas until the military determines their two co-defendants are mentally competent. "We want everyone to plead together," he said.
Mohammed and another defendant have said they would welcome execution as a path to martyrdom, but the announcement came as a shock to some of the victims' families.
A select group of relatives of the 2,973 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001 were able to see the proceedings in person. Maureen Santora, of Long Island City, N.Y., whose son Christopher died responding to the World Trade Center attacks, wore a black top and black pants and clutched a photo of him in his firefighter uniform.
Alice Hoagland, of Redwood Estates, California, was there for her son Mark Bingham, who is believed to be one of the passengers who fought hijackers on United Flight 93 before it crashed in rural Pennsylvania. She said the defendants' announcement was "like a real bombshell to me."
She told reporters during a break that she hoped Obama, "an even-minded and just man," would ensure the five alleged mass murderers are punished. She did not elaborate. She said she welcomed the opportunity to see the trial because it was a "historic" moment. But she said it did not heal the loss of her son.
"I do not seek closure in my life," she said as she blinked back tears.
Nine family members came to Guantanamo for the pretrial hearing but it was not immediately clear if all attended.
In a letter the judge read aloud in court, the five defendants said they "request an immediate hearing session to announce our confessions."
The judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley, asked all five if they were prepared to enter a plea, and all five said yes. But Henley said competency hearings for two of the detainees precluded them from immediately filing pleas.
The letter implies they want to plead guilty, but does not specify whether they will admit to any specific charges. It also says they wish to drop all previous defense motions.
Mohammed, who has already told interrogators he was the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, also said Monday that he has no faith in the judge, his Pentagon-appointed lawyers or President George W. Bush.
Sporting a chest-length gray beard, Mohammed said in English: "I don't trust you."
He also dismissed one of his standby military attorneys because he had served in Iraq.
The five defendants calmly passed notes between each other and consulted laptops at their individual defense tables. One observer who lost his parents in Sept. 11 told reporters he supports the military commissions, and criticized the defendants for not taking it seriously.
"The U.S. is doing its best to prove to the world that this is a fair proceeding," said Hamilton Peterson of Bethesda, Md., whose parents Donald and Jean were on United Flight 93. "It was stunning to see today how not only do the defendants comprehend their extensive rights ... they are explicitly asking the court to hurry up because they are bored with the due process they are receiving."
The first U.S. war-crimes trials since World War II are teetering on the edge of extinction. Obama opposes the military commissions - as the Guantanamo trials are called - and has pledged to close the detention center holding some 250 men soon after taking office next month.
Even if a trial were held, it is all but certain none would begin before Obama takes office on Jan. 20. Still, the U.S. military is pressing forward with the case until it receives orders to the contrary.
"We serve the sitting president and will continue to do so until President-elect Obama takes office," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman.
Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch also observed the hearing. She urged Obama to try terror suspects in federal court "where attention will focus on the defendants' alleged crimes rather than the unfairness of the commissions."
The military commissions have netted three convictions, but have been widely criticized for allowing statements obtained through harsh interrogations and hearsay to be admitted as evidence.
The victims' family members watched from a gallery at the rear of the cavernous, high-security courtroom on the U.S. Navy base, and were not allowed to address the defendants.