Cork native Ron Clifford found himself in the World Trade Center lobby by coincidence on September 11, 2001. What he didn’t know as chaos and fire erupted around him that morning was that his sister Ruth Clifford McCourt, 45, and her child Juliana, only four, were on the plane that hit the South Tower.
Now, nearly 11 years since losing them, Clifford will face the men who masterminded the attacks that killed his relatives and 2,975 other confirmed victims.
Clifford will testify at the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has claimed he planned the attacks, and his associates, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin ‘Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Mustafa Ahmed Adam Al Hawsawi.
“We need to prove these people are culpable. They planned this, orchestrated it, carried it out to a tee,” Clifford told the Irish Voice in an exclusive interview.
“They’ve had an incredibly negative effect on humanity as we know it.
“I miss my sister and my niece every day. I wonder on their birthdays what they would be like at this age.”
The next hearings are scheduled for August 22-24 and 26-28 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to court documents. Clifford couldn’t say when he expects to appear in court beyond “probably toward the middle of the trial.”
Clifford said he usually avoids bringing back memories of September 11. He can’t bring himself to visit the memorial at Ground Zero, although he says it’s a “wonderful tribute.” As a victim family member, Clifford has clearance to view the military trial proceedings via CCTV, but has no intention of doing so.
“Why put yourself in that upsetting situation?” he asked.
“I would just want to walk into court, say my piece, and know that he [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] was judged and sentenced accordingly,” Clifford said. “I don’t think emotionally I could go through it every day and watch it. I think I’d just get very angry.”
But Clifford is willing to relive the day the towers fell one more time for the sake of justice. He also testified at the 2006 trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for his involvement in the September 11 attacks and other terrorist plots.
Testifying “brings you right there again, it brings you right to all the stuff we’ve had to endure,” Clifford said. “It brings you to all the stuff we’ve been trying to live and forget.”
Clifford’s testimony in 2006 helped him and his family better come to terms with the tragedy, he said. His daughter, who was 15 at the time—and had turned 11 on September 11, 2001—accompanied him and sat across from Moussaoui as, for the first time, she heard her father’s story.
“A cloud left our family,” Clifford said. “It was not the unspeakable thing any more. We were able to discuss aspects of the trial and the law, and what happened to me that day.”
Though testifying could make Clifford a target for violence, he said he chooses not to worry about the risks.
“I’ve often wondered, will someone come up and shoot me as a result?” he said. “I don’t think I could live in that kind of paranoia.”
When profiled in Irish Voice founding publisher Niall O’Dowd’s 2002 book "Fire in the Morning," Clifford expressed Christian mercy toward the plot’s masterminds. But time has now hardened his views.
“My attitude has changed,” he told the Irish Voice. “I do believe in forgiveness, but they don’t want to be forgiven. They want to be martyred.
“They’re getting more and more radical by the day,” he said. “For me it comes down to murdering people in cold blood.”
The interrogation techniques used on the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other defendants, techniques labeled in some venues as torture, were necessary, according to Clifford.
“Without the use of force and torture, the U.S. would have been unable to avert other catastrophic events and find out who was behind these events,” he said. “I think that was the only course in extracting this information.”
The Khalid Sheikh Mohammed trial, for Clifford, is a necessary element to justice, but one that he’s looking forward to having behind him.
“The big thing is my belief in the American system of justice, at any level, whether it’s federal or military, it’s a very good, fair system,” Clifford said. “I’m confident they will get a fair trial, as Moussaoui did. He got a fair trial and we watched it.”
Clifford was against the short-lived push to move the trial from Guantanamo Bay to New York City because some necessary evidence wouldn’t have been constitutionally admissible in a criminal court, he said. Regardless of the venue, he said the trial will be cathartic for both victims and the nation as a whole.
Though news reports earlier this summer predicted a protracted trial that could last years, Clifford says he’s confident legal proceedings will now move ahead quickly.
“We’ve evolved into one of the few societies that can do this,” Clifford said. “That’s based on our good Constitution.”
Clifford, who still retains his Irish accent, says he’s 100 percent Irish but “living the American dream.”
A software executive, Clifford specializes in startup companies. His love for his adopted country is apparent, as is his optimism for the future.
“I see how New York has bounced back,” he said. “We’ve got the battle scars and the war wounds, but I think we’re better people. I enjoy life—I respect life more, and I treasure the relationships.”
Clifford has undergone treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, induced by his experience in the World Trade Center. Although his symptoms have improved over the past decade, he still feels anxious in crowded places.
“If I hear loud noises, I hit the deck,” he said.
Clifford stressed the importance of his religious faith in his ability to “deal with” the aftermath of the tragedy, and remained stoic throughout his interview with the Irish Voice.
“Once you have faith, you can get through anything,” he said.
According to court documents, the hearings later in August will deal with several logistical and administrative procedures. The docket states that the government will motion to keep trial information that is “detrimental to public safety” classified, while the defense has in general promoted the release of redacted versions of trial information.
The defense will motion for the appointment of an additional lawyer for Hawsawi, for the defendants to appear in their own clothes, and for three specific witnesses to testify.
So far, the defense has filed motions stating that government restrictions on communication between the defendants and their lawyers are preventing the lawyers’ ability to provide adequate counsel.
The first witness requested by the defense, whose name is redacted from court documents, works in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, and is expected to testify on the CIA Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program.
The second witness, Larry Fox, is a professor at Yale Law School and is expected to give his opinion regarding the legal and ethical implications of overly restricting communication between attorney and client.
The third, Robin Maher, is director of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation project, and will testify on “capital representation guidelines.”
The selections hint that the defense intends to pursue lines of inquiry related to the prior interrogation—and allegations of torture—of the defendants. It seems the defense counsel will attempt to loosen government restrictions on communication between the defendants and defense attorneys, and to clarify the legal representation the defendants can expect should they be sentenced to death.
According to Clifford, these avenues of inquiry are to be expected from the defense lawyers, who “will try to play out every angle.”
“They’re just doing their job,” Clifford said.
Another hearing originally scheduled for September 8-12, has been cancelled due to its proximity to the August date. The court is expected announce a replacement date at the hearing next week.