GUANTANOMO BAY, CUBA — A U.S. military judge at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba has ordered the disconnection of a line that allowed the U.S. government to censor the proceedings of the five accused co-conspirators of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The move came after the judge discovered an unidentified entity outside the courtroom has been listening to and controlling the broadcast of statements made during a pretrial hearing. The hearings have adjourned until February 11.
Judge James Pohl's discovery that an outside entity of the U.S. government had the power to switch off the audio feeds from the military courtroom has complicated the U.S. government's efforts to portray these proceedings as fair and transparent.
Pohl, an Army colonel, on Thursday ordered that no third party in the U.S. government has the authority to suspend audio feeds from the courtroom.
The judge was surprised on Tuesday when someone switched off the line that broadcasts court proceedings to journalists, observers and others, for about two minutes. The feed has a 40-second delay designed to let censors prevent the leak of classified information. Pohl did not know someone outside of the court was controlling it.
At the time the feed was cut, defense attorney David Nevin was discussing a motion to preserve so-called “black sites” or secret U.S. detention facilities in third countries where the suspects were allegedly held and tortured after their arrest. The judge said Nevin had not said anything that was classified. It is not clear what prompted the censors to act.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Nevin expressed concern that someone other than the judge had that kind of control over the courtroom.
“Why is it that coming up on five years into this [that] not even the judge is aware of who's listening and who has the authority and the ability to shut it down so that you can't hear it? So that not one more word after right now, when I've decided you've all heard enough, not one more word gets heard. What kind of a system is that?,” Nevin said.
Lawyers declined to comment when asked if they suspected the order to cut the line had come from the Central Intelligence Agency.
The incident prompted the judge to recess all day Wednesday to consult with court officials and clarify what happened. The discussions delayed action on a number of motions that were supposed to have been addressed this week.
The delays illustrate the difficulty that the U.S. government is having in prosecuting this case in which it has to balance the need to give the men a fair trial and at the same time protect classified information and national security interests.
Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor, said conducting the proceedings in a way that is fair and transparent will take a long time.
“And although it is wearying, it's necessary that we do this. That as we move toward judgment, we do it in a way that is in accordance with our values. That's what we're going to do. That's what we all swear an oath to do and that's what we will do,” Martins said.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other accused co-conspirators face the death penalty if found guilty of conspiracy and nearly 3,000 counts of murder for their roles in planning the 2001 attacks.