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Rumsfeld: Safety a Key Issue for Terror Tribunal - 2002-03-22

The safety of judges, lawyers and witnesses is a key element in the procedures announced this past week by the Pentagon for trying al-Qaida and other terrorist suspects before special military commissions.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says it is no secret that terrorists pose a potential threat to the lives of military and civilian personnel who will be involved in the special trials.

But Mr. Rumsfeld says he wants to avoid the kind of protective measures necessitated by previous terrorist trials.

"For example, the judge who handled the trial for the first World Trade Center attack is still under 24-hour protection by Federal Marshals, and may be for the rest of his life," he said. "That is unacceptable in the cases likely to be assigned to the commissions."

So the 16-page document setting out procedures for the eventual trials of al-Qaida and other terrorists by military commissions contains some special security provisions.

The commissions, for example, will hear the testimony of some witnesses by telephone, audiovisual or other means to protect their identities. Proceedings may also be closed during certain sensitive testimony and the witnesses themselves may use pseudonyms or false names.

Defense Department General Counsel William Haynes says such measures, while unusual, are not wholly unprecedented.

"But I'll point out, in our civil court system, it is widely accepted that judges have the ability to protect witnesses through various measures, including protecting their identity or masking their voices or otherwise," he said. "And I would think that a presiding officer, or appointing authority in this case, would consider the same range of things, consistent with the admonition that trials shall be open to the maximum extent practical."

Mr. Haynes says that while it is not spelled out in the procedures, it is conceivable that identity protection may also be extended to members of the military commissions and lawyers as well.

No one has yet been selected for trial by the commissions from the more than 500 al-Qaida and Taleban fighters currently in U.S. custody.

Defense officials have also not announced where the trials will be held.

But it widely expected they will be convened at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where more than half the detainees are being held in specially-constructed prison facilities.