Inside the Guantanamo courtroom

Updated 11:16 PM ET

(CBS News) GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba - He sat at a table in the front of the courtroom, and again Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of September 11th, seemed in charge.

Captured in Pakistan in 2003, today Mohammed -- known as KSM -- is thinner, his bushy beard tinted red. Dressed in a long white tunic and pants, he wore a black prayer cap and, once seated, used a white cloth to fashion a turban around his head.

And he said nothing. There were no lengthy statements about the evil of American law or the "inquisitionland" at Guantanamo. He didn't proclaim, as he has in the past, that he wanted to plead guilty and be put to death as a martyr.

When military judge James Pohl asked how he would plead, his lawyer spoke for him. He wanted to defer his plea. That means the lawyers can continue attacking the procedures and the military commissions. And that means a full-blown military trial later this summer is more likely. The hearing was adjourned and the judge recessed the commission until June 12.

That's a dramatic reversal from four years ago, when KSM and the other four suspects first were brought to trial and, in court hearings, said they would plead guilty. That case was dismissed after the Obama administration announced plans to bring the five suspects to New York for a regular criminal trial.

We're now back to square one, after the administration had to shelf its plans in the wake of intense opposition. But today that showed history -- even with the same players and in the same setting -- doesn't always repeat itself.

KSM signaled his new strategy within moments of entering the courtroom this morning under a military guard. He refused to engage Judge Pohl, prompting the judge to inquire whether his headphones -- which provide the proceedings in Arabic -- were working. They were. KSM, who speaks English, was refusing to answer.

Pohl asked KSM eight different questions about whether he wanted lawyers and who he wanted to represent him. KSM deliberately looked away. Eight times, the judge said: "The accused refuses to answer."

At times, KSM turned to talk to the other suspects sitting behind him. During court breaks (they took three breaks for prayers), all five whispered back and forth. Smiling, they seemed relaxed, and they appeared to laugh.

9/11 "mastermind," 4 others before Gitmo judge
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Accused of training hijackers, facilitating or financing the attacks -- the other four also remained silent when Pohl questioned them during the hearing. They kept their faces down, flipped through magazine (they shared a copy of The Economist) or read the Koran.

It was a dramatically different scene four years ago, when the Bush Administration first brought the five to trial. I was also in the courtroom for that hearing, when we saw KSM for the first time in public.

The five alleged suspects in the 9/11 attacks.
CBS News

It was a shock to see him then -- so different from the disheveled, stocky man in the photograph taken when he was captured. He had a full gray beard, and he seemed small. It was hard to grasp that this was the notorious KSM, the man who says he was the architect of the plot that killed nearly 3,000 American people.

But then he started talking, and then -- like today -- it was clear KSM was in command. He forcefully told the judge that American law was evil, and he rejected his American lawyers. He passed notes to the other four terror suspects, and whispered to them during breaks. They followed his lead, chanting in Arabic and praising Allah. KSM told the judge he wanted the death penalty. "Yes, that is what I wish," he declared in 2008. "I'm looking to be martyred."

Today, he followed a strategy of silence to assert control and defiance. There were no real outbursts -- although Ramzi bin al Shibh, who allegedly helped train the hijackers, spoke out briefly to allege mistreatment at Guantanamo.

Pohl, an experienced and no-nonsense judge, held firm. He couldn't force the suspects -- who were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques after their capture -- to talk. But he would not allow them to stymie the process, he said, and he appointed their lawyers after they refused to speak.

"He cannot choose not to participate and frustrate the normal course of business," Kohl told KSM's lawyer, David Nevin.

Today's hearing was something most people never expected to see. After President Obama took office, he ordered Guantanamo closed by 2010. The trials stopped, and charges against the five were dismissed when Atty. Gen. Eric Holder announced plans to bring the five to the United States, to stand trial in New York in a regular criminal court.

But after an intense public outcry, Congress intervened, and all but forced the administration to scrap those plans -- and restart the military trial over at Guantanamo.

Today, instead of lengthy soliloquies from the 9/11 suspects, their American civilian and military lawyers did the talking. They sparred throughout the day with Judge Pohl. They complained the suspects couldn't wear the clothing of their choice to court (some type of vest). They spoke of torture and mistreatment and repeatedly objected that they had been unable to talk privately with the suspects.

When Cheryl Bormann, a lawyer for Walid Bin Attash (who allegedly ran training campshelped train), described scars from alleged mistreatment, Bin Attash took off his tunic and exposed his bare chest. The judge ordered him to stop.

In the courtroom today, Bormann wore traditional Muslim attire -- a black hijab and abaya. She urged the female military prosecutors, dressed in uniform with knee-length skirts, to consider more "appropriate" attire so the suspects won't have " fear of committing a sin under their faith."

But you didn't feel KSM, while refusing to engage the process, was at all disengaged. As the lawyers tangled with the judge, KSM looked on and smiled.

Also in the courtroom were nine family members of 9/11 victims. Some said they came to see KSM, a man they see as synonymous with evil. Eddie Bracken's sister Lucy Fishman was killed in the World Trade Center.

"I hope he turns around and looks at me," Bracken said before the hearing. "I want to see him face to face, because that's the one that killed my sister."

Also in the courtroom were sisters Tara Henwood Butzbaugh and Mary Henwood Klotz. Their brother, John, was killed at work inside the World Trade Center.

"The time to answer for their crimes is here, the day of reckoning has come," Tara told me, "and we have come to show that we're still here and that we will not stop until we seek justice."

Mary said they also came to Guantanamo to remember and honor their brother and his family.

"I feel very strongly about his children -- his son is 16 and his daughter will be 13 in July," she told me, her eye filling with tears. "They were robbed of an incredible dad."

  • Jan Crawford On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.

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