KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Bear with us for a minute as we go over some numbers for this next story. It has been more than 16 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and more than nine years since the five primary suspects in those attacks were first arraigned. This morning, one of many pretrial sessions of their trial began. NPR national security correspondent David Welna is at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the defendants are held and where the military court meets. Hello there, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: OK, so why has this case taken so long?
WELNA: Well, for one thing, consider the location. This is all happening at the southeastern tip of the island of Cuba in a big metal ship perched along an abandoned airstrip. And virtually nobody involved in this massive court proceeding, except for the five defendants and some 1,500 military guards, actually lives down here.
So once every two months or so, the military judge, the prosecution, the five defense teams, interpreters, expert observers, relatives of the victims and reporters like me all fly down here for court sessions that go on from one to 10 days with constant interruptions and thousands of pretrial motions being filed. So logistically, it hardly makes sense to hold it here. But the whole premise of this war court is that these are wartime proceedings with defendants who've been removed from the battlefield to be kept here while the hostilities continue.
WELNA: And one gigantic complication in that is that all five of the defendants, including the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were brutally interrogated in secret CIA prisons called black sites before they were brought here according to a Senate investigation. And virtually everything that's happened to them remains shrouded in secrecy...
WELNA: ...Allegedly to protect national security. And that's created a real standoff with the defense teams who want to know more about the black sites.
MCEVERS: Right. And so I said that today's session was a pretrial session. What's the primary issue there?
WELNA: Right. Well, it's a motion being made by one of the defense teams challenging the jurisdiction of this war court over their client. They argue that while this court is for trying war crimes, the U.S. was not at war with al-Qaida on 9/11, that this was a terrorist attack just like the truck bombing in Oklahoma City was and that it should be adjudicated in a U.S. federal court.
Walter Ruiz is the lawyer making that argument. And he points out that early in the Obama administration, this whole case was supposed to be moved to a federal court in New York but was not simply because of political opposition. Here's Ruiz.
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WALTER RUIZ: So the question there is that it all of a sudden not become a law of war crime, that we were going to send it to New York and then it became a law of war crime again because we're going to send it back to Guantanamo. The answer is it's never been a law of war crime. It's never been a war crime. It's always been what we said it was at first, which was the acts of terrorism, and that we have as a country tried number of times in domestic courts.
WELNA: Of course the prosecution, which no longer speaks to reporters here, plans to argue that the U.S. was indeed at war with al-Qaida and that the defendants all belonged to that group.
MCEVERS: How much longer could it be before a trial actually begins?
WELNA: Nobody knows for sure. You know, the prosecution would like it to begin in January of 2019. The defense says it could be years still before that starts.
MCEVERS: How many prisoners are still at Guantanamo?
WELNA: There are exactly 41 captives remaining here, and that's down from a peak of about 700 during the Bush administration. And only 10 of them have actually been charged. Another five got cleared for release the final month of the Obama presidency, but they never got out.
And 15 prisoners, including all five of the 9/11 defendants, are being held at a lockup here called Camp Seven, whose exact location is a state secret. And the rest live in a big prison camp that's mostly empty now. And the annual cost to keep them has risen to over $2.5 million. That's per prisoner.
MCEVERS: Wow. When Donald Trump was campaigning for president, he said he'd fill up Guantanamo with, quote, "bad dudes." What happened to that plan?
WELNA: Well, (laughter) it hasn't happened. Not a single dude, bad or otherwise, has been sent down here under Trump. In fact last month, he tweeted that statistically things take much longer here than they do under the federal system. And it's true. Just last week, the alleged mastermind of the Benghazi attacks was swiftly convicted by a federal court while being kept at a simple county jail in a Washington suburb.
MCEVERS: NPR national security correspondent David Welna, thank you so much.
WELNA: You're welcome, Kelly.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.