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Pentagon Denies Media Access to Guantanamo Tribunals for CIA Terror Prisoners

Reporters will be barred from hearings that begin Friday in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for 14 terror suspects transferred last year from secret CIA prisons, officials said Tuesday.

Interest in the 14 is particularly high because of their alleged links to the Al Qaeda network. Among them is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. He was captured in Pakistan in March 2003.

A New York-based human rights group that represents one of the 14 men accused the Pentagon of designing "sham tribunals." The organization contended that its client, Majid Khan, has been denied access to his lawyers since October 2006 "solely to prevent his torture and abuse from becoming public" and to protect complicit foreign governments.

U.S. authorities say Khan was being groomed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for an attack inside the United States.

"We might expect this in Libya or China, but not America," the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement. It said Khan was subjected to CIA interrogation methods that amounted to torture.

Pentagon officials have said any allegations of mistreatment are investigated.

In announcing the hearings, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he could not say which of the 14 would be tried first or how long the process would take. No word of the hearings will be made public until the government releases a transcript of the proceedings, edited to remove material deemed potentially damaging to national security, he said.

Whitman said the Pentagon is planning to withhold the name of the detainee from the edited hearing transcript, although that decision will be reviewed.

The hearings, known as combatant status review tribunals, are meant to determine whether a prisoner is an "enemy combatant."

Should a prisoner be deemed an enemy combatant, President Bush could designate him as eligible for a military trial. The first of these is expected to begin within the next six months.

News coverage was not prohibited during previous combatant status review tribunals — more than 550 were held between July 2004 and March 2005 — but some information was restricted.

Whitman said the hearings for the 14 suspects would be closed to the media to protect national security interests that could be compromised by the detainees' statements.

"Because of the nature of their capture, the fact that they are high-value detainees and based on the information that they possess and are likely to present in a combatant status review tribunal, ... we're going to need an opportunity to redact things for security purposes before providing that in a public forum," Whitman said.

He appeared to be referring to the fact that the 14 were held for an undisclosed period in a secret CIA prison network that Bush acknowledged for the first time last Sept. 6.

The president said at the time that the CIA program "has been, and remains, one of the most vital tools in our war against the terrorists."

In explaining the decision not to allow news coverage of the hearings, Whitman said the 14 detainees are "unique for the role that they have played in terrorist operations and in combat operations against U.S. forces."

In additional to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 14 include:

— Ramzi Binalshibh. He is believed by U.S. authorities to have helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks. He was captured in September 2002 in Pakistan.

Abu Zubaydah. A Palestinian raised in Saudi Arabia, he was believed to have been a link between Usama bin Laden and many Al Qaeda terror cells before he was captured in Pakistan in 2002.

— Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. He is the suspected mastermind of the October 2000 bombing of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors in Aden harbor in Yemen.

— Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. The Tanzanian allegedly helped coordinate the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Pentagon opened the Guantanamo Bay prison in January 2002; so far no captives have gone on trial.

Whitman also announced a tally of results from a separate hearing process at Guantanamo Bay, held each year to assess whether a detainee continues as a threat to the United States.

In the 2006 round, 55 of the 328 detainees evaluated were deemed eligible for transfer from the Guantanamo Bay naval base.

There are now about 385 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Since 2002, 390 have been transferred to their home countries or third countries.

Of the 385, about 80 have been designated for outright release or transfer. They remain at Guantanamo because the U.S. government has not worked out transfer arrangements.