Last week NPR and WGBH News correspondent Arun Rath was at “Camp Justice” in Guantanamo Bay to cover the hearings in the military commissions trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Rath, having just returned from Cuba, joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to discuss his experiences covering the trial and staying in the large local community of Guantanamo.

Jim: Arun, welcome back, and terrific reporting.

AR: Thank you, it’s very good to be back.

Margery: I bet it’s good to be back, but I’m glad you were there, because people are not paying attention to this at nearly the rate that they should be paying attention. You did great reporting down there. For people that don’t know what’s going on in Gitmo, please give us the picture. Why were you there?

AR: I was there for— this is the 9/11 trial, these are five men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks, in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who you mentioned, a little bit more than accused, because he’s claimed responsibility for this. He said he planned the attacks from A-Z, flying planes into buildings, using boxcutters as weapons, that kind of thing, along with four co-conspirators. This is the the third attempt to try him— there was a military commission with President Bush back in 2008, President Obama came into office and then they tried to try him in a federal trial in New York, and you might recall how that went, there was unhappiness about that, Mayor Bloomberg decided that they didn’t really want that there… The third attempt now is this new military commission, he was arraigned four years ago in May of 2012, and we are still in the pre-trial phase.

Jim: What exactly is going on the pre-trial phase? I read your reporting that one of the prosecutors said, we’ve heard the word ‘torture’ 500 times so far and ‘9/11’ only 200 times. It’s almost not at all about the 9/11 attacks, and almost exclusively about the way these five men have been treated at Guantanamo, yes?

AR: Yeah, and that’s something that clearly has frustrated prosecutors, which we saw some of over this past week, I can tell you about that. And the family members who are down there, they fly down 9/11 victims families to go and see the proceedings. But it has turned into— one of the biggest issues here is how they want to talk about how these five men were tortured by the CIA, in the black sites before they arrived in Guantanamo, because this all works towards… they’re looking past the trial to the end of the trial. This is not thinking that these guys are going to be found innocent, clearly there is evidence to convict them. They’re thinking about mitigation, meaning that at the end of this, they’ll be convicted, there is a defense argument that can be made that because of the way you treated these men, we do not have the moral standing to execute them anymore, so they’re basically playing the longer game.

Jim: Are they suggesting that if they prove that they were tortured, that some of the evidence that will be used against them is a product of that torture?

AR: That is part of it, as well. There is probably enough evidence they could go to without using information from interrogation, for instance, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed made this statement claiming responsibility for the attacks, there’s this legal theory that anything after the point of torture, even if it’s being done standard, even if I were to take a nice deposition sitting with you, if you had been tortured five years before that, it’s still tainted in a way because of that treatment.

Jim: This is the guy who was allegedly waterboarded 183 times?

AR: Waterboarded, and you can read the Senate torture report, the parts that are in there, there’s a lot of detail about these guys in particular. It’s waterboarding and things you might even think are worse.

Jim: You mentioned families of 9/11 victims fly down for this, roughly how many people are we talking about?

AR: Usually ten at a time, they get selected from a lottery, and they usually will bring a person along with them, so it’s usually ten people.

Jim: Who pays for this?

AR: The Department of Defense.

Jim: So they don’t have to pay for their own transportation to Cuba?

AR: That’s right.

Margery: We were talking about the meticulous planning of 9/11 with the boxcutters, et cetera, I did not realize that this guy had talked about having planned ten planes to be hijacked, but the plan was thwarted. Tell us about that.

AR: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the original plan was about ten plans to be hijacked, he was going to be on one of them, and if I’m remembering this correctly, his plan was to, on one of the planes that he was hijacking, was going to be to release the women and children and do this as a great media spectacle. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is somebody who is very media-savvy, and I hate to say this, but I get the sense that he’s enjoying this trial. And yeah, he wanted an even more spectacular attack, I could be getting this wrong, but Osama Bin Laden was essentially the one who said to dial that back.

Margery: They’re operating under different rules down there—you talk a lot about the corruption of the whole process and documentation being hidden… it’s not like being in an American courtroom.

AR: No, in a lot of ways. For one thing, I think you guys have a delay on this show in case someone comes on and swears, right? There’s a 40-second delay when you’re in the courtroom in the gallery, obviously you’re seeing it in real time because you’re there and there’s double-planed bulletproof glass, but the audio feed is delayed by 40 seconds. There’s a court security officer there, ready to have his finger there to press the button and cut the audio feed in case anybody says anything that’s classified or sensitive.

Margery: Why is there double-paned bulletproof glass?

AR: There’s just high security with everything there. The idea is that maybe somebody could come in and try to have a go at one of these guys…

Margery: We don’t have double-paned bulletproof glass in regular American courtrooms.

AR: Even with that, we can’t take our own pens in. As journalists, you probably find that as upsetting as I do. The courts supply pens.

Margery: I didn’t realize that there’s this whole community down there, you’re talking about schools and…

Jim: It’s a military base, right?

AR: Guantanamo has become shorthand for the prison in Guantanamo, and I’m sloppy with that at times, when we talk about closing Guantanamo. Nobody is ever going to close —or at least, for a long time— the base in Guantanamo, but yeah, it’s a full navy base, and now there are joint operations there because of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, which is the… they always say they are tenants there. When they’ll be leaving is a broader question.

Margery: How many people are there, in the thousands?

AR: Yeah, it would have to be in the thousands, yeah.

Jim: Aren’t you famous for having done karaoke at a local club?

AR: In some circles, yeah.

Jim: Let’s get back to the courtroom. What does Khalid Sheikh Mohammed look like in the courtroom? We’ve seen pictures from years ago— what does he act like? What’s his response? What happens in the courtroom?

AR: I think the best-known pictures are the one right after his capture, where he looks completely disheveled and horrible, and then there’s the Red Cross photo, from Guantanamo, where he’s got the beard and looks a bit more serene. He’s grown out the beard even further, somehow he’s dying his beard.

Jim: You wrote orange, what is that about?

It’s a sign, I think, of devotion? Somehow? But his has gone a full-on bright orange, it’s almost flamboyant. I’m not trying to be funny, clearly he’s a guy who takes great pride in his appearance. He wear a camouflage vest as a sign that he’s a fighter, a headdress, and he’s very meticulous. He seems very… he looks in good health, he’s definitely not hunger striking, because he looks pretty healthy, he’s got a good-sized belly on him. It’s disturbing seeing him be happy, at times.

Jim: Does he talk to the lawyers?

AR: He talks to the lawyers, he has interrupted in court before. He has even, one time, started giving a soliloquy in the middle of court, and everyone was just kind of shocked that this would happen— the judge warned him afterwards, but he went on a rant at some point.

Jim: You wrote this years ago… I think it was 2012, whatever it was, a prior time, about how when one of the five defendants, not Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was leaving the courtroom, he flashed a smile and a thumbs-up at one or more of the 9/11 victims, what’s the story there?

AR: Well, it seemed from the gallery and obviously to the family members that he was, yeah, making a brute horrible gesture… he was giving a thumbs-up and smiling, but it was just kind of an affront at them. What we’ve heard from defense attorneys later is that that signal was intended for the defense attorney who was working with him. It’s hard to tell line of sight and those kinds of things, but even leaving that aside, there have been times when they have been disrespectful of the proceedings. Like I said, interruptions, not just from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. One of the times, I think it might have been at that same arraignment, one of them was sitting there making paper airplanes. Obviously, if you think about the 9/11 attacks, that’s a bit more gruesome than just thinking about being flip.

Arun Rath is a shared correspondent with WGBH News and NPR. To hear his full interview with Boston Public Radio about his time in Guantanamo Bay, click on the audio link above.