Gitmo trial’s bizarre censorship

UPDATED: Military judge demands government cease any third party censorship of court broadcast feeds

Topics: Khalid Sheik Mohammed, 9/11, Guantanamo, Censorship, CIA, Editor's Picks,

Updated, Jan. 31: The military judge handling the trial of the 9/11 suspects ordered the government on Thursday to disable the ability of any outside party to censor the audio and visual feed of the court proceedings. Col. James Pohl said Monday’s incident would be “the last time” that an outside party “will be able to unilaterally suspend the broadcast.”

 

Original post: It came as a surprise, even to the judge. According to reports, during Monday’s pretrial hearing for the Guantánamo detainees accused of the 9/11 attacks, audio and video feed from the courtroom to a press gallery cut out, and a red light in the court went off, indicating the “censor” button had been pressed. But neither the judge nor the appointed censor had pressed the button. On Tuesday, following lengthy closed-door meetings, Judge Col. James Pohl said that the feeds should not have been shut off at that time, but refused to disclose who had been responsible.

The Miami Herald reported from the hearing at the Guantánamo military base:

Spectators in the war court gallery watch from behind soundproofed glass and hear the court on a 40-second delay. A red emergency light spins in court when a censor at the judge’s elbow hits the mute button to prevent someone from spilling national security secrets. Conversation continues, but the public can’t hear it.

On Monday, neither the judge, nor the censor — called a court security officer— had done it.

According to the Washington Post, the only other authority reviewing and classifying the feeds in real time is “almost certainly” the CIA. “But it remains unclear whether agency personnel have a previously undisclosed ability to cut the feed,” the Post noted. When a defense attorney asked  the judge Tuesday about who had the power to cut the feed, Pohl said that they were touching on issues that should not be discussed in open court. The defense attorney’s concern, however, was an important one: Are unknown officials listening in to confidential information passed from his clients at the counsel table too?



As the New Yorker blog noted, “assertions about the surveillance of the defendants and the confidentiality of attorney-client conversations have not been reconciled” — yet another glaring flaw in the almost ad hoc war court proceedings:

This is Guantánamo, where following the proceedings can be a bit like watching over someone’s shoulders when they play SimCity and forget an essential utility, causing the whole grid to crumple. The military-tribunal system has undergone a few revisions since the early Bush years, mostly thanks to the Supreme Court, but the government is still pretty much making it up as it goes along, in a way that is painful to watch. Hilarity would ensue were this not a solemn session in which we are supposed to be impressing the world with our ability to bring mass murderers to justice while maintaining not only the rule of law but also a shred of dignity.

Meanwhile, this week’s hearings threw up another interesting issue when attorneys representing Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the other accused men requested to spend two nights each month in the Guantánamo cells with their clients. According to reports, KSM’s lawyer David Nevin said he wants to visit Camp 7, where the suspects have been held, in order to understand his client’s “behavior and his actions in open court, and also his reaction to his current conditions of confinement.” Nevin said it was necessary “particularly in the context of a person who was tortured.” The lawyers argued that the personal histories and psychology of their clients could be relevant in any sentencing phase of the death penalty case.

As the Guardian noted, “None of the defense lawyers have ever seen inside the maximum security facility, Camp 7, where detainees captured and tortured by the CIA – including Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times – are held.” The government has objected to the request on the grounds that it “could endanger the lives of those involved in such a visit.” Instead the lawyers have been offered an escorted tour of the camp, which one defense attorney likened to “jungle ride at Disneyland,” far from a “full and meaningful inspection.”

 

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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