As his 10th anniversary at Guantanamo Bay draws near, an al-Qaida plotter from Baltimore is at the center of a new plan that could help resolve the cases of the dozens of men still held at the military outpost on Cuba.
The idea is for detainees to strike deals with federal prosecutors, plead guilty over a video link to a federal judge in the United States and serve any prison time overseas.
Lawyers for Majid Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who graduated from Owings Mills High School, have expressed his willingness to pursue that option if the government agreed, and legislation to make it possible was approved by the Senate last month.
"Majid Khan decided a long time ago that he was going to take responsibility for the things that he did and that he was going to cooperate with the U.S. government," said J. Wells Dixon,one of his lawyers. "Majid is committed to fulfilling his cooperation in whatever forum the government determines appropriate, whether that's military commissions or federal criminal court."
Attorneys for other men detained at Guantanamo see the proposal as a last shot at getting their clients some certainty before President Barack Obama leaves office. But the idea faces an uncertain future in Congress, where many Republicans oppose the president's plans on Guantanamo, and where some think offshore military tribunals are the best way to handle foreign terrorists.
Obama pledged to shut down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay during his 2008 campaign, but Congress, concerned that the detainees present a national security risk, has blocked him from bringing them to the United States. The Defense Department has published a new plan to try to clear out the final detainees, who are suspected of plotting, yet in many cases have not been formally charged. But resolving the cases of the final few dozen men still held there has proved difficult.
Joe Margulies, who represents one of the detainees, called the video plea plan the "last, best chance" for some of the men.
"The president still cares," said Margulies, a law professor at Cornell University. "One concern is that, whoever the next president is, that will not be a priority for them."
The White House declined to comment on the teleconferencing idea. Spokesman Myles Caggins said the administration remains committed to the goal of shutting down the detention center and is willing to explore different options to resolve the remaining cases.
"We continue to believe it is important that we explore the full range of tools at our disposal as we determine appropriate dispositions for the remaining detainees, based on an evaluation of the entirety of the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests," he said.
Khan, 36, came to the United States in the 1990s. According to government records, he was inspired to return to Pakistan and join al-Qaida by a family friend who had battled the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He linked up with senior terrorist figures but was captured by Pakistani authorities.
His arrest in 2003 began a three-year span of detention and torture in the custody of the CIA. New details of Khan's recollections of his treatment emerged last month in transcripts released by the Defense Department to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Given the extent of the torture Khan suffered, Dixon said, it was a significant decision to plead guilty and put his trust in the American government in the hope of one day regaining his freedom.
"That underscores the depth of his acceptance of responsibility and his desire to move forward with his life," Dixon said. "Majid Khan doesn't want Guantanamo to be the last chapter written in his life."
The new account, which was read out by an Air Force major assigned to represent Khan at a 2007 hearing, begins with his arrest at his brother's home in Karachi, Pakistan, in the early hours of March 5, 2003. Khan, his brother, his sister-in-law and his infant niece were held at a prison near a popular restaurant in Karachi, he said. Then he was taken to another facility to be interrogated.
Khan said he was handed over to Americans in May 2003 and put on a plane. The locations of where Khan believed he was being held are redacted in the documents, but he said the first place was underground. He recalled a dozen or so cells on his level and floors above with more cells. Every day beginning at 4:00 p.m., he said, he heard the screams of Afghan men being tortured above him.
At another location, Khan said, he was handcuffed to a wall for days on end and then dunked naked in an ice bath.
"The worst of all, when this whole thing was happening, American women were there watching," Khan said. "To me, as a Muslim, it was worse than torture itself."
Khan was moved to other locations. He said he was subjected to more mistreatment, including having a large piece of ice dropped on his genitals. When he went on hunger strike, he said, doctors tried to force-feed him through his rectum.
The details are consistent with documents released by his lawyer last year and the 2012 Senate report on the CIA's torture program. The CIA declined to comment.
Khan said the treatment continued until early 2006. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay later that year.
In 2012, Khan pleaded guilty before a military commission on charges relating to the bombing of a hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, that killed 11 people and plotting with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-declared mastermind behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Despite his plea, Khan remains trapped in limbo. In an unusual deal, he has agreed to help prosecutors in cases against other detainees; his sentencing was delayed to allow the government to assess how well he cooperates. The period of time he's required to help is scheduled to be extended at a hearing this fall.
A plea to a civilian charge might offer Khan more certainty about his future, but first Congress would have to approve the new approach. The video link proposal would have to survive negotiations between the House and the Senate over an annual defense bill, and then be signed by the president.
Closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay has been the subject of bitter battles between the Obama administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.
Many lawmakers have argued that detainees cannot be safely held in the United States. While the video conference plan might sidestep that problem for some detainees, some Republicans have argued that suspects should continue to be held offshore at Guantanamo as the nation continues to fight terrorist networks abroad.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who has staunchly opposed bringing detainees to the mainland, said he also opposes the video conference plan. He believes the detainees should be prosecuted before military tribunals, spokeswoman Katherine Knight said.
"He knows the best place for Guantanamo detainees is at Guantanamo Bay," Knight said. "Military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay create a clear legal process for adjudicating the cases of enemy combatants."
The idea has also met with different responses from the community of lawyers who represent the detainees, said James Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University.
In its latest plan to close the detention center, the Pentagon said as many as 20 detainees could be considered for prosecution in civilian courts. But it's not clear how many would be interested in making a plea deal under the teleconference arrangement.
Shayana Kadidal, who represents a detainee named Sufyian Barhoumi, who has been accused in a bomb plot against the United States, said his client had a simple reason for not wanting to bargain: "He has consistently denied the core of the allegations that the government has made against him."
Cohen said some other attorneys worry they would not secure favorable sentences from federal judges, or that starting a new legal process could upset the detainees' chances of getting released under the parole-board like process that operates at Guantanamo.
Cohen represents a detainee called Sanad al-Kazimi, who is described in military documents as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. Cohen said he supports the teleconference plan, but did not want to comment on his client's case or potential willingness to make a plea.
Margulies represents Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi man initially suspected of being a high-ranking al-Qaida member but who the CIA later concluded was actually not part of the group. The 45-year-old, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002, has never been charged with a crime.
Margulies said Zubaydah would consider the idea of pleading guilty before a federal judge.
"We would be receptive to it, if the offer were right," Margulies said. "I can't imagine why we would not listen."
Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime or appeared before a judge. His lawyers have asked the government to charge him so they could at least get him into court.
Supporters of the idea say it would be more fair than continuing with military commissions or holding detainees without charge. It could also lead to detainees getting credit for time they've already served and sidestep a looming question about whether the military court can even hear the offenses they have been charged with.
"Federal criminal court would provide greater certainty for the federal government and Majid Khan," Dixon said. "Federal judges have experience dealing with complex national security cases, they have experience dealing with cooperating witnesses like Majid Khan and they have experience dealing with victims of torture like Majid Khan."