A US military judge has ordered the government to dismantle a monitoring system that let outside censors halt the public broadcast of hearings for Guantanamo prisoners accused of plotting the September 11 attacks.
The judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, said on Thursday that “it is the judge that controls the courtroom”.
|Defence lawyers want assurance talks with
their clients were not tapped [GALLO/GETTY]
“This is the last time … any other third party will be permitted to unilaterally decide that the broadcast should be suspended,” Pohl said.
The closed-circuit broadcast feed was cut for a few minutes during a pretrial hearing at the Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base on Monday for the self-described mastermind of attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four co-defendants.
The cutting of the feed revealed for the first time that a still unidentified entity outside the courtroom was listening in to proceedings with a finger on the kill switch.
The feed was cut when Mohammed’s lawyer, David Nevin, mentioned a defence request to preserve the secret CIA prisons where the defendants had been held before being brought to Guantanamo.
Pohl said on Tuesday the feed had been cut without reason because the information in question was not secret, and a
transcript of the censored portion was later released.
Spectators watch tribunal hearings from behind a soundproof glass wall at the rear of the courtroom at Guantanamo.
They hear the sound on a 40-second delay, through a feed that also provides sound and video to journalists in the Guantanamo press center and to a couple of closed-circuit viewing sites on the US East Coast.
A court security officer sitting next to the judge controls a button that muffles the feed with static and flashes a red light when secret information is disclosed.
After meeting privately with the lawyers, including prosecutors who seemed well aware of the outside monitoring, Pohl said an “original classification authority” had the ability to monitor the courtroom and cut the feed.
“… After this week, the paranoia level has kicked up a notch“
– James Connell, Defence lawyer
Pohl did not identify that authority, but it would be whichever agency or officer had originally classified information about the CIA prisons as secret.
Pohl ordered that monitoring system be removed on Thursday and said emphatically that he and the court security officer were the only ones with authority to suspend the broadcast.
The chief prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins, is the government’s top-ranking representative at the trial and said his team would comply with the judge’s order.
He refused to say who cut the feed or where they were listening from.
The hearings adjourned as scheduled on Thursday and will resume on February 11.
They will then consider an emergency request that further hearings be halted until it can be ascertained whether someone was also eavesdropping on defence attorneys’ conversations among themselves and with their clients.
Nevin said defence lawyers have a duty to ensure those are confidential.
Defence lawyers have long suspected their conversations were being monitored and “after this week, the paranoia level has kicked up a notch,” said James Connell, who represents defendant Ali Abdul Aziz Ali.
After Thursday’s hearing, another of the defence lawyers, Commander Walter Ruiz, said: “Is this a system that we can
believe in? Who is pulling the strings? Who is the master of puppets?”