Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – When he took over this week as the judge in the military trial of the five defendants charged in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Col. W. Shane Cohen inherited 23,039 pages of public and secret transcripts; a vault with secret evidence withheld from defense lawyers by prosecutors invoking a national security exception; approximately 500 substantive legal case motions, some awaiting rulings; and more legal arguments and filings in the pipeline.
He is the third person since 2012 to preside over the complex, slow-moving proceedings, which have been bogged down over how to handle what the United States did to the terrorist suspects from 2002 to 2006 in the CIA's secret network of black sites.
More than 17 years have passed since the attacks by al-Qaida — and seven since Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the plot, and four accused accomplices were arraigned in the case, which carries the death penalty — and Cohen could be the first judge to set a trial date.
On his first day on the bench, he described himself to lawyers in the case as a Mormon with "a very Jewish name" who felt shock but no anger over the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11.
He referred to the Sept. 11 defendants arrayed in front of him in the cavernous courtroom on the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay as "gentlemen" and addressed civilian defense lawyers as "sir" and "ma'am," adopting a more courteous approach than the cutting, less indulgent judge, a Marine colonel, who presided before him.
Cohen said he had two years left on his current Air Force assignment, as a circuit judge based in Virginia, and nine years until mandatory retirement, meaning he could preside over the case for some time.
"I understand the seriousness of what we're doing here," he said.
His first day in court Monday was devoted to letting lawyers question him on his qualifications and for potential bias, a practice in court-martial cases. It offered a window into the style, experience and thinking of Cohen, 48, a career military lawyer, whose last assignment was as chief of the Air Force's environmental law and litigation division.
"I do not recall ever being angry about anything that happened with Sept. 11," he said, adding that he did not know a single victim of the attacks.
When James Harrington, a defense lawyer representing Ramzi bin al-Shibh, one of the accused plotters, asked if the colonel was aware that the CIA torture of the defendants "was a big issue in this case," the judge responded, "I understand that the parties will be arguing over whether or not your clients were tortured."
The judge was assigned to the case June 3. Since then, he said, he had "wondered" whether the U.S. Constitution applies to military commissions, and was hoping prosecutors and defense lawyers would help him "make the right decision."
Harrington replied, "Welcome to the sewer, judge."
The last judge, Col. Keith Parrella of the Marines, was impatient and decisive during his qualifications questioning. He took over the case in September, presided for nine months, then became commander of Marine Corps security forces at U.S. embassies worldwide.
Cohen appeared humble by contrast, asking at times how to pronounce the names of some in the courtroom.
Mohammed, the lead defendant, sat about 30 feet from the judge. His accused accomplices sat in rows behind him, two of them having brought shawls with images of Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, demonstrating their affinity with the Palestinians.
The judge's official biography shows he obtained his undergraduate and law degrees from Brigham Young University. But, unprompted, he brought up his faith when he was asked about his attitude toward Israel's conduct in the Middle East.
"I do have some relatives that are Jewish. I am not. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," he said. "I believe that all people, men and women, should be able to worship how, where and what they may. I have no affiliations with the state of Israel, nor do I harbor any ill will toward the religion of Islam."