Guantanamo Judge Eliminates Secret Censor At 9/11 Trial

Guantanamo Judge Eliminates Secret Censor

GUANTANAMO NAVY BASE, Cuba -- The military judge handling the trial of five detainees charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks ordered the government on Thursday to disable the ability of any outside party to cut off the broadcast of the court proceedings.

Col. James L. Pohl said this week would be "the last time" that any third party "will be able to unilaterally decide" when the court closes. An anonymous outside censor -- almost certainly the CIA -- cut off the feed earlier this week when a lawyer for Khalid Sheikh Muhammed began discussing his motion to make the government preserve the secret black sites overseas where his client was tortured by the CIA, in order to protect any evidence. Pohl admitted on Tuesday that he wasn't aware of the audio-visual capabilities of the multimillion-dollar secure courtroom facility.

"I order the government to disconnect any ability for any third party to unilaterally suspend the broadcast of these proceedings," Pohl said in court on Thursday, reading from a prepared statement.

Proceedings at Guantanamo are streamed on a 40-second delay to a room with a view of the courtroom, to Guantanamo's media center and to additional reporters in Fort Meade, Md. A court security officer located in the courtroom has the ability to cut the feed if any classified information is mentioned, but it was revealed this week that an additional outside censor also had the ability to cut the feed without the judge's input.

Pohl continued, "It is the judge that controls the courtroom."

UPDATE: "I understand that observers may become frustrated when part of a proceeding is withheld from view, even temporarily," chief prosecutor Gen. Mark Martins said in a statement on Thursday afternoon. "After this closure -- which the Judge explained was not occasioned by any actual spillage of classified information -- the unredacted transcript of what was said during this brief instance was released to the public in less than 48 hours. Many officials continue to work hard to ensure that the public can meaningfully observe and make informed judgments about these proceedings, while protecting our national security interests."

Defense attorneys for the detainees said later Thursday that the debate over the censor button demonstrated the illegitimacy of the military tribunal system.

"Who is pulling the strings? Who is the master of puppets? We have more questions than we have answers," said Walter Ruiz, an attorney for Mustafa al Hawsawi, an alleged al Qaeda money courier.

David Nevin, a lawyer for KSM, said it would "open a number of questions" if indeed someone based in the U.S. had the ability to cut off the feed of the courtroom facility. Martins had declined to say whether the secret censor was based either in the U.S. or was located somewhere on Guantanamo Navy Base.

James Harrington, a lawyer for Ramzi Binalshibh, said a federal judge would have never put up with someone else having the ability to cut off access to his courtroom.

"I have been practicing for over 40 years in federal courts in the United States, if this had happened before any federal judge that I know of, this proceeding would have been stopped. There would have been hell to pay. Hell to pay," Harrington said.

The lawyers also worried that communications with their clients in the courtroom were also being monitored even when they pressed a button that was supposed to turn their microphones off.

"Let me tell you, after this week the paranoia level has kicked up a notch," said James G. Connell III, who represents Ali Abd al Aziz Ali.

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