22 Years Later: Seeking Answers, Justice, and Accountability for 9/11 Families

For 22 years, my family and I — and especially my sister, Laura, and the nearly 3,000 others who lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks — have been denied justice.

The betrayal began when the Bush administration chose to take the accused perpetrators of the attacks to CIA “black sites” where they were subjected to torture.

Moreover, the administration’s decision to move the accused to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and conduct a trial in an inadequate military-justice system rather than in federal court only compounded this shameful act.

As a majority of the accused pleaded guilty, the judge was uncertain about how to proceed given the lack of clarity in the Guantanamo rules regarding death sentences in the absence of defense lawyers.

Eventually, Congress revamped the Guantanamo legal system.

In 2009, the Obama administration made a half-hearted attempt to move the 9/11 case to federal court in New York, but faced opposition from state and city politicians, resulting in the case returning to Guantanamo.

By 2018, six years after the re-arraignment of the five accused, no trial had commenced.

The military official authorized to negotiate plea agreements (guilty pleas in exchange for avoiding the death penalty) was fired by former President Trump’s defense secretary, leading to a resumption of pre-trial hearings.

In March 2022, the complete failure of the 9/11 military commission prompted the prosecution, representing the US government and the American people, to initiate plea agreement negotiations with the defense.

However, the Biden administration recently rejected proposals regarding the future confinement of the defendants, extinguishing any hope for a prompt resolution of the case.

The 9/11 family community, which consists of diverse opinions on trials, the death penalty, and plea agreements, shares a common desire for comprehensive information about the planning and support behind the attacks.

Although I am not involved in the Saudi lawsuits, I believe it is essential to uncover the truth about Saudi support for al Qaeda and potential Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks, whether it be individual citizens, organizations, or members of the Saudi government.

In assessing the situation, we should consider three questions:

1. Will the 9/11 military commission at Guantanamo ever conduct a trial that results in a verdict?

2. If so, what is the likelihood of obtaining death-penalty convictions?

3. What can plea agreements offer to victim family members and the US public?

I have personally visited Guantanamo more than ten times to observe the 9/11 case, and I regularly watch the hearings via closed-circuit TV at the Fort Devens Army Base.

It is my hope that my perspective can contribute to and broaden the ongoing discussions within families, Congress, and the public at large.

Over the past 11 years, I have witnessed how the fact of the defendants’ torture has derailed the trial process, with courtroom debates revolving around the admissibility of evidence tainted by torture.

Moreover, many hearings are closed to protect classified information related to CIA actions, making the system less transparent in revealing the government’s protected facts.

No former CIA detainee has been convicted in a trial before the military commissions, although the 9/11 accused might become the first. However, this process would likely take many more years, followed by a lengthy appeals process involving the Court of Military Commission Review and federal courts, possibly leading up to the Supreme Court.

The 9/11 prosecutors have informed families that if a defendant passes away before all appeals have concluded, they will be considered innocent.

Only one former CIA detainee has been sentenced through a plea agreement in a military commission. The military jury, consisting of senior officers, expressed outrage at the detainee’s torture and seven out of eight members wrote a letter of clemency stating that the abuse provided no practical intelligence or tangible benefit to US interests, but instead tarnished the moral fabric of America.

As death-penalty convictions in the military commissions require a unanimous jury decision, the death penalty would not be imposed if even one juror felt similarly about the defendants’ torture during the 9/11 trial.

In contrast, plea agreements would lead to immediate guilty verdicts and life sentences without the possibility of parole or appeals. Many plea agreements also provide opportunities for victims and their families to question the defendants.

We must actively organize and demand answers to all our questions as part of the factual stipulations each defendant must make regarding their guilt.

Additionally, we must advocate for further declassification of all evidence in the US government’s possession relating to the planning, support, and execution of the 9/11 attacks.

Twenty-two years without answers, justice, and accountability is a stain on the moral fabric of America.

Terry Kay Rockefeller is a founding member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, the only 9/11 family organization with non-governmental organization status that allows its members to observe the 9/11 military commission at Guantanamo as representatives of civil society.


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