New 9/11 Judge at Guantánamo Quits

There’s yet more chaos in the long-delayed, problem-plagued 9/11 case in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba: A new U.S. military court judge who took over the case in mid-September has quit after about two weeks on the job.

Col. Stephen F. Keane was assigned to the case on Sept. 17, and on Oct. 2 he recused himself, citing a series of potential conflicts that could make him appear biased. His resignation means the 9/11 trial is unlikely to begin before next year’s twentieth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Keane was the fourth permanent judge to have overseen the 9/11 case in roughly the past two years. His predecessor, Air Force Col. W. Shane Cohen, resigned abruptly in March after nine months on the bench, citing family concerns.

Among the potential conflicts cited by Keane:

  • He was raised in the New York City area and has relatives who were in the city on Sept. 11, 2001.
  • As a U.S. Marine in 2012-2013, he did investigative work that involved al-Qaeda.
  • From 2003-2003, he did counterterrorism work for the U.S. Department of Defense in which he was evaluated by a military court prosecutor.
  • Since being assigned to the 9/11 case, “I have become aware of a significant personal connection to persons who were directly affected by the events of 9/11.”

“The fact that he was there for such a short time is a function of what a complicated mess this case is,” said attorney James Connell, who represents one of the five 9/11 defendants, Ammar al-Baluchi, who is accused of funding the 9/11 hijackers.

In his two week tenure overseeing the 9/11 case, Keane issued two significant orders: He canceled all hearings in the case until next year, and he delayed the start of the 9/11 trial until at least August 2021, saying the delay was necessary due to pandemic travel restrictions and his need to familiarize himself with the case.

Legal proceedings at Guantánamo have been at a virtual standstill since February, when the coronavirus began limiting access to the island.

After Cohen resigned and before Keane took over the 9/11 case, the chief judge of the military commissions judiciary, Army Col. Douglas K. Watkins, had been overseeing it on a temporary basis. Watkins is expected to oversee the case temporarily again until a new permanent judge is assigned, according to Connell.

The 9/11 case has been mired in years of “pre-trial hearings” as military prosecutors struggle to bring the case to trial. Setbacks are frequent, including the following problems this year alone:

  • The former administrative head of the military court, Christian Reismeier, moved to a different role after being in his position for less than a year.
  • James P. Harrington, the lead attorney for one of the 9/11 defendants, asked to leave the case, citing health issues and “incompatibility” with his client.
  • David Bruck, the new lead attorney assigned to represent Harrington’s client, said he needs 2 1/2 years to prepare for trial.

Guantánamo’s military court and prison have cost U.S. taxpayers at least six billion dollars since 2002.

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