“The judge overseeing a military trial at Guantanamo Bay has ordered an end to secret government censors after courtroom sound was cut during a discussion about CIA prisons.
Army Col James Pohl ordered an unnamed government agency to remove censorship equipment, as a second round of pretrial hearings finished on Thursday.
The order could add further delays to the proceedings, correspondents say.
Defence lawyers want assurance talks with their clients were not tapped.
The judge said in his ruling that he had sole authority to decide when to close a hearing or stop spectators – including journalists and relatives of the victims – from listening to testimony.
Spectators watch the proceedings behind soundproof glass, and receive audio on a 40-second delay so that a court security officer can switch on a white noise machine while classified information is being discussed.
In Monday’s hearing, all but the prosecution were surprised when the audio feed to the gallery of press, NGOs and the families of 9/11 victims suddenly halted when defense counsel for KSM uttered the title of a motion pertaining to his client’s detention at a CIA sponsored black-site prison— a matter of public record. Judge Pohl reaffirmed that, even though a court security officer has instructions about what topics are to be censored, only the presiding judge has the authority to close (i.e., censor) the courtroom. Furthermore, Judge Pohl noted that the comment that resulted in the censorship “is not a valid basis for the court to have been closed.”
Judge Pohl then attempted to resolve— on the record— the defense’s concern regarding who has access to audio feeds from the courtroom. He explained that there are two audio feeds. One feed never is censored and is transmitted only to the court reporter. The other feed – the feed in question during Monday’s prolonged censorship – is buffered with a 40-second delay, which allows the aforementioned court security officer time to sever the feed before it reaches the gallery or remote-viewing locations.
While it may seem that Judge Pohl shifted quickly from preserving access to information during the hearings, to cautioning defense counsel about divulging information to which the public wants access, the issue resurfaced later during Tuesday’s proceedings. Judge Pohl ultimately held in favor of some procedural transparency, granting the defense’s motion to release redacted versions of classified pleadings.
James Connell, Learned Counsel for co-defendant Ammar al-Baluchi, illustrated for the commission that many documents in the case have remained entirely unavailable to the public for more than three months, some approaching half a year, despite the Government’s practice of releasing sanitized versions with sensitive information redacted.
Sterling Thomas, an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and detailed defense counsel to al-Baluchi, further argued for the availability of documents, noting that the very slogan appearing on the Military Commission’s website would seem to promote intrinsic notions underlying the pursuit of justice:
“Your Honor, if you were to click on the Office of Military Commission website, you’re immediately greeted with the banner of fairness, transparency, and justice. And if one were a cynic, Your Honor, one might say that these words are merely window dressing. But yet, Your Honor, I think that it’s important to note that those words are there and that obviously the government understands that that’s an important principle…. But, Your Honor, the frustration continues to build as a result of delays in the – in having openness, in having transparence. And I think it was evident as recently as yesterday when our client made some statements about his frustration with the lack of what he sees as openness and transparence. And, Your Honor, I think that equally you could say the American people are also frustrated by a lack of openness and transparence. With those things in mind, Your Honor, I just want to emphasize that we think it’s critically important that whenever possible the pleadings, orders by the commission that are not classified, that these things be made available to the public so that they can inform themselves and educate themselves about this trial.
Against the points made by the defense counselors, Navy Lieutenant Kiersten Korczynski, assistant trial counsel for the United States, argued little more than that the defense is required by the Military Commission Rules to file documents, that are not certainly unclassified, directly to the judge rather than through the ordinary docketing process.
The relevant regulation (RTMC 17-1(c)(1)) is designed to preserve the judge’s control over the release of trial-related information. If the United States wants to prevent the defense’s documents from being released, the prosecution must petition the judge to do so. Likewise, if the defense wants to compel the release of their documents, it must petition the judge to do so.
Finding that the Military Commission Rules already provide the remedy that, if followed, would preclude the United States from indefinitely detaining unclassified information, Judge Pohl held essentially that the United States must comply with its own regulation.