Observers watch the Sept. 11 hearings from a viewing gallery at the U.S.… (Janet Hamlin, AFP/Getty…)
FT. MEADE, Md. — The military judge in the Sept. 11 conspiracy case angrily ruled Thursday that government censors and intelligence officials can no longer shield the proceedings from public view and that he will decide when to cut off a live audio/video link in instances where classified information is discussed.
Judge James L. Pohl, an Army colonel, also is considering halting the entire case to investigate allegations from defense lawyers that the censors have been using technology to improperly eavesdrop and spy on the lawyers' private conversations with their clients, both in the courtroom and in other parts of the detainee compound at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Navy Lt. Commander Walter Ruiz, attorney for Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi, an alleged Al Qaeda financier, said the government monitoring system was making a mockery of what was billed as an open and transparent military tribunal process.
"Who is the invisible hand?" Ruiz asked. "Who is pulling the strings? Who is the master of puppets?"
The eavesdropping allegations surfaced in an emergency defense request Thursday from the lead attorney for alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to temporarily "abate the proceedings" until the court could investigate the matter. Pohl promptly made the issue the top priority to be decided when pretrial hearings reopen Feb. 11.
"The issues raised here need to be resolved before we do anything else," the judge announced. "The allegation really goes to the top of the list."
The motion by David Nevin, Mohammed's lead civilian attorney, was sealed, but he said in a news briefing after Thursday's hearing that lawyers for all five defendants believed the government, and particularly the CIA, had been monitoring their private attorney-client conferences in and out of the courtroom.
He said, for instance, that when defense lawyers ask to speak to the defendants outside court, the guard force first demands to know what language they will be using.
"Why do they need to know that?" he said. "This has been a problem with every case that has been litigated here at Guantanamo. And now I was surprised to find there were these shadowy third parties controlling the output from the courtroom too."
But Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, defended the military tribunals and suggested that the simulcast link from the courtroom, to Ft. Meade and other sites to accommodate Sept. 11 victims' families, was not being compromised.
"Many officials continue to work hard to ensure that the public can meaningfully observe and make informed judgments about these proceedings," he said, "while protecting our national security interests."
As originally set up, the proceedings are broadcast with a 40-second delay supervised by the court security officer and censors called the Original Classification Authorities, a group of government intelligence experts.
Whenever they believe classified information is being discussed, they push a button that shines a red light in the courtroom and notifies the judge the line has been cut.
On Monday, Nevin was discussing a nonclassified issue when suddenly the light flashed and the audio and video went dead for three minutes. The defense complained and Pohl investigated the matter.