Published Sunday, January 29, 2012
By Alex McRae
The Newnan Times-Herald
On his last trip to the seashore, Coweta's Jesse Nieto wasn't hoping to get a tan. He was hoping to get justice.
From Jan. 16-18, Nieto and his wife, Connie, sat in a military justice facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and watched the United States of America begin the prosecution of the al-Qaida terrorist accused of killing Nieto's son.
"It was a beautiful place," Nieto says. "But we weren't there to see the sights. This has been a long time coming."
Most Americans will say that this nation's "War on Terror" began on Sept. 11, 2001. It didn't. That's just the day America finally decided to fight back.
For Nieto, the most important date in America's long-running fight against al-Qaida terrorists is Oct. 12, 2000, when al-Qaida operatives based in Yemen piloted a small boat packed with explosives across the harbor at Aden, Yemen, and blew a gaping hole in the naval destroyer USS Cole.
The blast injured 37 sailors and killed 17. One of them was Nieto's 24-year-old son, Marc.
It has been more than 11 years since Marc Nieto gave his life for his country. It has been almost 10 years since al-Qaida leader Abdal Rahim Al-Nashiri was arrested and charged with plotting the attack on the Cole.
Finally, the U.S. is about to bring Al-Nashiri to justice.
The January trial session, largely a series of procedural hearings, was virtually ignored by U.S. media outlets more concerned with presidential politics back home. But it was a big step forward for Jesse Nieto.
"We are still a long ways from going to trial," Nieto says. "The U.S. wants to have the trial this year, but [Al-Nashiri's] defense lawyers are trying to get it pushed back to 2015 or later. I don't know when it will happen. But I want people to know this is going on. And I want them to remember what happened on the Cole."
* * *
Nieto will never forget the day he got the news. After retiring from a 25-year career with the U.S. Marine Corps, Nieto was working for the U.S. Civil Service at Camp LeJeune, the huge Marine Corps base near Jacksonville, N.C.
On the morning of Oct. 12, 2000, Nieto was out of the office on an assignment when his supervisor called on the radio and told him to come back.
When Nieto arrived, his supervisor uttered two words: "Go home."
"He didn't say anything else," Nieto says. "Just 'go home.'"
As Nieto raced back home a thousand thoughts went through his mind, none of them good.
"I thought there might be a family problem at home or someone was sick or anything else," Nieto says. "I just didn't know."
Nieto found his then wife glued to the TV set, watching as reports flooded in about the bombing of the Cole. Nieto worked the phone tirelessly, trying to get any scrap of information from government officials.
"They didn't know much yet and just kept telling me to hang loose," he says.
Nieto stayed up all night hoping for the best and dreading the worst. The next day when he saw a U.S. Navy chief and a military chaplain approach the house, his heart sank.
"I knew what that was," he says. "I knew Marc was gone."
The next day, Nieto traveled to the U.S. Navy base in Norfolk, Va., where families of the Cole victims were gathering. It was five agonizing days before Marc Nieto's lifeless body was pulled from the ship's wreckage.
"They knew he had been killed because of where he was on the ship when it happened," Nieto says. "It just took that long to get to him."
Marc Nieto's remains soon arrived at the military mortuary facility in Dover, Del. Jesse Nieto went back to North Carolina to pick up the pieces of his life. He waited in vain to see if the U.S. would mount a military reprisal against the terrorists. Or at least against the port of Aden, Yemen, where the suicide boat was launched.
"I thought they would level that place," Nieto says. "Nothing happened."
Twenty-six days after Marc Nieto was killed, George W. Bush was elected president and the Cole attack quickly became old news.
Marc Nieto had served six years in the Navy and reached the rank of Engineman-Petty Officer Second Class-EN2. He was wondering whether to re-enlist. Marc worked on the ship's engine turbines, motors and mechanical systems. He was in the engine room when the the ship was attacked.
"He loved what he did," Nieto says. "I think he probably would have re-enlisted."
Nieto has visited survivors of the attack and is impressed by how well they withstood the attack and the aftermath. For three days after the bombing, the ship was without food and water before rescue vessels arrived. It was also in constant danger of sinking.
"If it hadn't been for the skipper and those chiefs, they would have lost that ship," Nieto says. "They busted hump and really saved that ship."
When the Cole was repaired and put back into service more than two years after the attack, Nieto boarded with his son's remains and sailed into the Atlantic for a burial at sea.
"That's what he wanted," Nieto says. "I plan to be buried there, too, when my time comes."
* * *
Almost immediately after the incident, officials of the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice began working to console the victims' families and assure them they would move heaven and earth to find those responsible. Nieto says the FBI could not have been better.
"They were outstanding," Nieto says. "They kept us advised every step of the way about what they were doing and how the investigation was going. They said it was taking a while to figure out who did it and find them, but they wouldn't stop until they did. They were great."
Nieto's opinion of the diplomats and politicians involved is not as favorable.
"Things were so bad that an FBI guy had to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen to get those people to cooperate," Nieto says.
A few al-Qaida operatives were arrested shortly after the incident and put in Yemeni jails. Nieto says they didn't stay long.
"Some of them escaped and some of them got a slap on the wrist," Nieto says. "They probably gave them a carton of cigarettes on the way out."
Al-Nashiri was captured in November 2002 by the CIA. He was detained and interrogated outside the U.S. for almost four years before being transferred to the U.S. facility at Guantanamo. Even then, the judicial system moved slowly, when it moved at all.
"All this time, they were telling the families 'we're gonna find this one' or 'we're gonna try this one,' but they really just kept putting us off," Nieto says. "Nothing happened."
In February 2009, less than a month after President Obama was inaugurated, Nieto's hopes soared when he was invited to the White House along with family members of the 9-11 victims.
The president swore to the families he would not rest until terrorists accused of killing U.S. citizens were caught and convicted. Nieto felt hopeful. But not for long.
The presidential reception was held on a Friday. Hours after leaving the White House, Nieto learned that on Thursday night, just hours before meeting with the families of terror victims, Obama had ordered the charges against Al-Nashiri dropped pending a review of all Guantanamo detainees.
"That really left a bitter, bad taste in my mouth," Nieto says.
The charges were soon reinstated and Al-Nashiri's trial proceedings have finally begun. The defense strategy was made clear when one of Al-Nahisiri's attorneys, Richard Kammen, said, "Through the infliction of physical and psychological abuse, the government has essentially already killed the man it seized almost 10 years ago. By torturing Mr. Al-Nashiri and subjecting him to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, the United States has forfeited its right to try him and certainly to kill him."
"They're going to claim he's not able to defend himself because he was tortured," Nieto says. "This whole trial is a political football the politicians are playing with. If they left it to the military, it would be taken care of. And it would be fair."
* * *
As trial proceedings were scheduled, Justice Department officials contacted the victims' families and made arrangements for those who wanted to watch to travel to Guantanamo. The first proceedings were held in November. The Nietos were present for the second set of hearings held earlier this month.
The proceedings were held in a large room divided into different sections for judicial officials, family members and press. Victims' families were seated in the back of the room behind what Nieto calls a "very thick sheet of glass."
As soon as Al-Nashiri entered the room, he stopped to stare at the families.
"He could see all of us," Jesse says. "He knew exactly who we were. He didn't care."
Security was heavy throughout the visit. The Nietos had to go through three separate security checkpoints every time they entered the courtroom. Security personnel were always on hand to make sure victims' family members had no contact with the accused or with members of the defense team.
"We were told any contact could be grounds for a mistrial," Nieto says. "Nobody wanted that."
The process is only beginning, and Jesse Nieto realizes it will be long and hard.
"It's going to be slow," he says. "That's just the way the system works."
More hearings will be held this spring. Nieto plans to go back.
The actual trial is expected to last four to six weeks. Family members will be allowed to watch at least one week of court sessions.
"I'll be there," Jesse Nieto says. "But I'll never have closure. It's the way it happened that bothers me. I've been in firefights, and I understand how that happens. But when you have a little savage who isn't man enough to go toe-to-toe in a gunfight and bushwhacks you, you don't rate nothing. He doesn't deserve constitutional rights. He's the enemy. Period."
The families of the victims of the Cole attack have become close and meet several times each year to comfort each other and remember the loved ones they lost.
"We understand. The others who haven't been through this don't," Nieto says. "We know things will never be the same again."