SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A lawyer for a Guantanamo prisoner charged in the Sept. 11 attack has filed suit against the prison commander, arguing a new rule subjecting legal mail to a security review is unconstitutional and amounts to illegal "intelligence monitoring" of a U.S. citizen.
James Connell said Thursday that his suit filed in federal court in Washington is broader than a previous legal challenge to the rule brought by the lawyer for a separate defendant in the Sept. 11 case.
The suit filed by Connell, which was cleared for public release Wednesday after a security review that redacted some details about his client and his confinement at the U.S. base in Cuba, asks a judge to strike down the rule as a violation of the rights of defense lawyers.
The Washington-based Connell said the rule not only violates attorney-client privilege but his rights as a citizen to communicate in private with a prisoner.
"The Supreme Court has said there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a letter when you mail it from one person to another and there have to be certain requirements before the government can violate that," he said.
Connell added that it is also a problem that the new policy requires legal mail to prisoners facing war crimes trial be reviewed by a security team that includes intelligence officers. That is a kind of monitoring of U.S. citizens — the lawyers — that can't be done except under limited circumstances, he said.
"The intelligence community should not be reading my mail without going through the strict reqirements of U.S. law," Connell said.
Connell is a civilian attorney who was appointed by the Pentagon to represent Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, also known as Ammar Al-Baluchi, an alleged al-Qaida lieutenant from Pakistan who has been charged with war crimes for allegedly helping nine of the Sept. 11 hijackers travel to the United States and sending them money for expenses and flight training. He has been in U.S. custody since April 2003 and at Guantanamo since September 2006.
A Pentagon official is deciding whether the charges warrant it being a capital case that would make him eligible for the death penalty if convicted. He is expected to be arraigned with four other Guantanamo prisoners charged in the Sept. 11 attack later this year.
Connell's suit names the prison commander, Rear Adm. David Woods, who adopted the new rule on legal mail on Dec. 27 to ensure prisoners are not receiving prohibited materials, such as top-secret information or objects that might be fashioned into weapons.
A Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, said the military would not comment on the suit. But officials have defended the rule as a necessary security step, denying it violates attorney-client privilege and makes it impossible to ethically represent the defendants.
In a letter earlier this month to the president of the American Bar Association addressing concerns about the rule, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, said the creation of a review team to screen the mail reflects the military's goal of trying to balance the "legitimate and important" need for detainees to be able to communicate with their lawyers with "national security and physical security concerns at Guantanamo."