Guantanamo News: 9/11 Case Delayed

Yesterday, officials at Guantanamo Bay announced that United States v. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, et al. a.k.a the 9/11 trials, will be delayed until at least April. The case has been at a standstill since December when the presiding judge, Army Col. James Pohl, decided to adjourn to determine the mental status of one of the detainees on trial. Continue reading

More Government Secrecy in Detainee Trials at Guantanamo Bay

Later this week, the trial of an alleged al-Qaeda bomber and current Guantanamo Bay detainee suspected of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole will continue, and one of the first items on the docket is a top secret motion from the government.  Classified motions are not exactly rare in military trials against detainees, but this one is particularly interesting.  Those who know the contents of the motion are barred from discussing any of its contents, and even the defendant, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and his defense team are not allowed to obtain declassified information regarding the motion unless the Army judge presiding over the trial compels it.  In fact, al-Nashiri’s lead attorney told reporters that his defense team had to fly to Washington, D.C. just to read it.

Army Brig. General Mark Martins, the government’s lead prosecutor on war crimes, insisted that his office was not using classification to cover up any embarrassing episodes, stating that there are “important narrow occasions” where the government may classify information “to protect national security interests.”  Still, the motion has already attracted negative attention from critics of the Pentagon court, which uses the motto “Fairness – Transparency – Justice.”  Yale law professor Eugene Fidell likened the motion to playing charades in the dark.  Even before news of the classified motion was released, a defense attorney filed a motion in May opposing any closure of future motions against al-Nashiri.

Military hearings at Guantanamo have been criticized for some time due to concerns over secrecy and the legitimacy of hearings against detainees, and this news will only add fuel to the fire.  The government is seeking the death penalty against al-Nashiri, and anything less than full disclosure of the government’s case against him leads to serious questions regarding the fairness of military trials against detainees.  In fact, Professor Fidell was quoted as saying,

“We’re supposed to be talking about the rule of law. You can have an all-star team of justices – Cardozo, Brandeis, Holmes, John Marshall, Stevens, Brennan, take your pick – and if they’re working in a closet you can forget about it in terms of public confidence in the administration of justice.”

The timing of this news was poor for the government in light of the recent leak of information regarding the NSA’s surveillance scandal.  With public concern regarding government secrecy rapidly growing, we should expect a great deal of criticism regarding the use of classified motions against detainees at Guantanamo.  And when the stakes are so high, we should be calling for more transparency and legitimacy in trials against detainees.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

The 9/11 Five’s Defense Counsel Granted Limited Visitation Privileges to “Camp 7″

Judge James Pohl has granted the defense counsel in the 9/11 military commission limited access to Camp 7, the top secret prison home of the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his four co-defendants.

The defense counsel teams initially requested a 48-hour access stint, which included the ability to sleepover with their clients once per month. The Prosecution proposed a cursory two-hour tour of Camp 7.

On Tuesday, Judge Pohl ruled that, for one time only, up to three members of each defense team could visit their respective clients in Camp 7 for no longer than 12 continuous hours. The visitation privilege was limited to the hours between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

No doubt about it: this is a big deal. Camp 7 is one of the most top-secret facilities on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. Even its very location is classified. Not to mention, this ruling comes one week after Camp 7 military police ransacked some of the defendants’ legal bins and seized already screened and approved personal items. The defense was in uproar last week, interpreting this as another attempt by the government to intrude on attorney-client privileged communications.

While the defense teams will be permitted to take notes, make sketches, and pictures during their visit, it is no surprise that those materials will be subject to inspection.

Commander Ruiz Angers Admiral MacDonald

Recapping the fourth and last day of last week’s 9/11 military commission hearings at Guantanamo Bay, presiding Judge James Pohl promised to address “the bin issue” after lunch.

But first, the court heard testimony from Admiral Bruce MacDonald, the Director of the Office of the Convening Authority and the presiding Convening Authority for the Office of Military Commissions. Commander Walter Ruiz, defense Counsel for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s co-defendant Mr. al-Hawsawi, argued that MacDonald inappropriately approved the 9/11 five’s eligibility for death sentences before each had been provided with an appropriate amount of informed legal advice.

A veritable screaming match erupted when Ruiz rhetorically asked, “Admiral, can a capital defense lawyer—who doesn’t have a translator that speaks the defendant’s language, who doesn’t have a mitigation expert, and who cannot communicate in writing with his client—present adequate mitigation evidence?”

Ruiz explained that he was without the help of a mitigation specialist—a defense team’s psychologist of sorts, who possesses clinical information-gathering skills enabling him or her to extract from the defendant sensitive, sometimes embarrassing and often humiliating evidence that will shape a defense attorney’s themes and theories of the case. Ruiz argued that while it is true that MacDonald had approved a particular mitigation specialist, he was of no beneficial use because MacDonald refused to approve his security clearance. So, although Ruiz’s mitigation specialist could speak to Mr. al-Hawsawi, he could not speak with him about any of the pressing classified issues—like his experience with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Also, Ruiz was without an approved personal translator, and was instead relegated to use a cadre of government-provided translators that had independent contracts with JTF-GTMO (Ruiz disputes having rejected eight translators).

Approaching lunch break, Judge Pohl asked MacDonald if he would agree to be interviewed by the defense. No, he answered. But then objected to interviews without a government official present.

Ruiz turned to sit down from the podium, but quickly returned as if he had forgotten something, and added with some sarcasm, “Judge, I will simply indicate as an officer of the United States Navy, I am a member of the government.”

“Commander, I’m more than aware of that,” Judge Pohl said, while nodding and smirking.

Admiral MacDonald will be recalled later in the hearings.

“The Bin Issue”

Ms. Cheryl Bormann, Learned Counsel for co-defendant Mr. bin ‘Attash, announced at the end of Wednesday’s hearing that when her client, Mr. bin ‘Attash, lead defendant Mr. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and another co-defendant returned to their cells after Tuesday’s session, their legal bins containing attorney-client privileged mail had been ransacked and some items were seized. Bormann summoned Navy Lieutenant Commander George Massucco, Assistant Staff Judge Advocate for JTF-GTMO, to take the stand.

Massucco, whose name was laughably butchered a dozen times before he was forced to spell it out for counsel, confirmed that there had been a routine inspection and items were seized, but the SJA Office has since determined that the items would be returned to the three co-defendants. He informed the court that the seized documents, mostly photos (one of the Grand Mosque in Mecca), were seized because they were improperly stamped and without initials.

Bormann alleged that the inspection protocol and stamping system was flawed in its practice. The guard staff conducting inspections, she explained, were re-screening documents that had already been approved by J2—documents that had been in the defendants’ cells, in some cases, for over a year and half. Having passed thousands of inspections since 2011, it is strange, she said, that they are being seized now. Her concern heightened when she learned that  a turnover in the guard force—what Massucco called an Army-Navy “rip”—was taking place.

“But as I see it, it’s not going to really matter who does the inspection if the inspection keeps happening. The seizure of the same mail, the same materials over and over and over, whether that seizure is done by a PRT person or whether that’s done by the guard force— it boarders on harassment,” Bormann pleaded.

“I got it,” Judge Pohl said.

Chief Prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins tried to cool the tension radiating from the defense’s side of the room. He explained that the inspection was routine, and the defense counsel teams unanimously agreed that such a procedure is reasonable and necessary in order to protect against a legitimate national security risk. The seizure, he explained, was a competent response to the same protocol that has been used by the “old hands” and is currently being taught to the “new hands.”

Bormann demanded the need for some common sense legislation. Yet Judge Pohl responded, “And I think, as you recognize, you said you can’t legislate common sense or order common sense; all you can do is the best you can with what you’ve got…. And you’ve got to balance [the legitimate need for security] obviously and minimize the intrusion to privileged materials.”

The defense proffered an off-the-cuff proposal for “common sense legislation”: that all documents be stamped properly in accordance with JTF-GTMO SOP and all inspections be performed under the same accord; and that the defendants’ legal bins only be inspected for illegal contraband (i.e. weapons), not for the content of the items contained therein; and if items are seized, the Assistant SJA should refer to defense counsel for reasonable clarification.

Moving forward, the defense has been given 7 days from last Thursday to submit a formal proposal, and the prosecution will be given 7 days to respond, although they have already made it clear that a motion to grant AE 018 would be their position.

In the meantime, the prosecution agreed to have all sixteen “smoke detector” microphones removed from Echo II.

Josh Wirtshafter is a fellow at the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University School of Law student. He is a member of the Class of 2014 and is a 2011 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, where he majored in Religious Studies.

The Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Hearings Resume: But Who Is The Man Behind The Curtain? And “Who is Controlling These Proceedings?”

2L student Adam Kirchner is currently observing the KSM hearings in Guantanamo.  This article, describing his first day as an observer, was featured in “The Public Record” on January 28th.  

The KSM Guantanamo Bay Military Commission Hearing, United States v. Mohammed, et al., reconvened on Monday for the second session of pre-trial motion hearings. The first session of these hearings, held in October, 2012, devolved into what many referred to as “a circus.” The opening session of this week’s hearings produced several tense moments, including a proverbial “Man Behind the Curtain” incident (as Presiding Judge James Pohl’s control of the proceedings was superseded by some, in his words, “external body”); the hotly contested issue of the United States obstructing defense attorneys’ access to their clients arose;  the debate over whether defense attorneys are truly free to communicate with their clients waged on; and, in their own words, the detainees offered the reasons why they choose to waive their rights to be present during the hearings.

The principal defendant, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and his four co-defendants are each accused of eight distinct changes under the Military Commission of 2009, for their roles in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The charges against the accused are: Conspiracy, Attacking Civilians, Attacking Civilian Objects, Intentionally Causing Serious Bodily Injury, Murder in Violation of the Law of War, Destruction of Property in Violation of the Law of War, Hijacking an Aircraft, and Terrorism.

In a briefing on Sunday, Chief Prosecutor Brigadier General Mark Martins addressed the suggestion that the recent detainee victory in Hamdan II from the D.C. Circuit would nullify the Conspiracy charges in this case as well. Prosecutor Martins stated that he would proceed in this case, assuming that he will be directed to push forward and argue the merits of the Conspiracy charge, despite the decision in Hamdan II. The strategy would make sense in the event the Hamdan II decision is appealed to the Supreme Court.

In the case at hand, the decisions made by the Judge,  Colonel James Pohl, in this phase of the commission  will ultimately affect the evidence that can be discussed, and the procedure of the commision on the merits once all pre-trial motion hearings have been concluded.

The Prosecution alleges that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the “architect of the 9/11 concept” in its motion designed to exclude from the trial information that it asserts could compromise the United States’ national security. See Government Motion to Protect Against Disclosure of National Security Information, AE013, page 3. Elaborating on the claim that Mohammed was the “architect of the 9/11 concept,” the Prosecution charges that he conceived of and oversaw the preparation for the 9/11 attacks. Co-defendant Walid bin Attash’s alleged role in the 9/11 attacks was developing the method by which the hijackers smuggled weapons aboard the airplanes, in addition to training the hijackers in hand-to-hand combat. Following co-defendant Ramzi Binalshibh’s denied entry into the United States, his alleged role in the 9/11 attacks was to be the liaison between the chief hijackers and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Co-defendant Ammar al-Baluchi’s alleged role in the 9/11 attacks included financial coordination of the hijackers, in addition to procuring a cockpit operations video and flight simulator for the hijackers’ training. Co-defendant Mustafa al-Hawsawi’s alleged role in the 9/11 attacks was financial coordination of the hijackers. Al-Hawsawi’s actions allegedly included draining the hijackers’ bank accounts on the day of the attacks.

Who is the Man Behind the Curtain?

Static filled the gallery’s speakers, and the large video screens which displayed the 40-second-delayed proceedings went blank— to prevent lip-reading— while a red light flashed at the right-hand side of Judge Pohl’s desk. Observation of the hearing was shut down.

As soon as the audio and visual feeds resumed and the flashing light shut off, Judge Pohl expressed two immediate question/concerns: Who ordered the audio/visual feeds to be censored, because it was not on his authority and why were the feeds censored when Learned Counsel for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, David Nevin, had been discussing theunclassified portion of the Joint Defense Motion to Preserve Evidence of Any Existing Detention Facility? After resuming control of what information would appear on the record, Judge Pohl emphasized his concern that an “external body” is superseding his authority, remarking that it was if “if some external body is turning the commission off.”

Nevin, on behalf of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, echoed Judge Pohl’s concerns and asked: “Who is controlling these proceedings?”

Learned Counsel for Walid bin Attash, Cheryl Bormann, emphasized  that the mere mention of a motion that contained some classified information seemed to trigger the censorship..

Defense Counsel for Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Navy Commander Walter Ruiz, raised an even more worrisome implication:  If an external body above Judge Pohl’s authority is censoring the audio/visual feeds, that same external body might also be eavesdropping on the defense teams’ communication during the proceedings even when they are not addressing the court. After all, the courtroom is filled with microphones.

Only the Prosecution did not look surprised when the curtain of silence fell upon the courtroom, and they would not discuss what they knew in public.

Counsel discussed these issues in a closed session Monday afternoon, originally slated to deliberate the Military Commission’s Rule 505, which states that an established attorney-client relationship can only be severed for good cause, by the request of the accused, or upon application for withdrawal by counsel. Rule 505 became a pressing issue early in Monday’s session because former-Detailed Defense Counsel for Walid bin Attash, Marine Major William Hennessey, suddenly withdrew from representing his client. Bormann expressed bin Attash’s wish to sever the relationship. However, Judge Pohl stressed the importance of clients themselves, not their counsel or proxies, controlling the severance of an attorney-client relationship when good cause has not been shown, as is the instant issue.

A Case in Point: Denial of Attorney Access to Clients

Before Judge Pohl heard any motions for the day, Ms. Bormann addressed a prevailing issue throughout her representation of Walid bin Attash during the past year: the United States, she argued, obstructs defense counsels’ access to their clients. Bormann and her co-counsel for bin Attash attempted to meet with their client in private at around 8:15, shortly before the proceedings. Bin Attash was present; however, Bormann and her co-counsel were denied any access to their client until he was brought to the courtroom under guard. Bormann argued that today’s barrier to accessing her client was a case in point, following along the lines of other instances of impeded attorney-client access.

Are Defense Attorneys Truly Free to Communicate with Their Clients?

Amidst vocal reactions from the gallery behind the glass, Ms. Bormann  told Judge Pohl, “You don’t live my life.”

Many of the families of 9/11 attack victims present did not, understandably, commiserate with Ms. Bormann. However, Bormann made her remark in the context of her ethical dilemma as an attorney whose attorney-client communication is seized for review by the United States. Ms. Bormann made the point, essentially, that she has not been truly free to communicate with her client since October 2011, thereby depriving her client of her ability to provide a fully informed defense against the charges against him.

Why the Accused Waive Their Rights to Be Present During the Hearings

Cheryl Bormann’s zealous advocacy for her client, Walid bin Attash, was matched in part by her client’s own level of engagement during the proceedings. Bin Attash, with a long, black beard, a head scarf, and a white tunic covered by a camouflage vest, spent much of the proceedings pouring over binders of information through thick, black glasses. Bin Attash made many notes and communicated often throughout the day with his co-defendants.

Anticipating that the accused would abstain from appearing in further sessions this week, Monday’s session concluded with Judge Pohl requiring the accused to answer whether they understood their right to appear at their hearings, and whether they had any questions for him about their rights. All of the accused answered in Arabic, through a translator, that they understood their right to appear at the hearings. But only Walid bin Attash took the opportunity to discuss why the accused, in their own words, waive their rights to be present during their hearings. Bin Attash, a Yemeni, explained excitedly in Arabic that the hearings’ process gives the accused no incentive to appear in court. The accused have been unable to develop trust in their attorneys despite a relationship lasting over a year. Bin Attash clarified that he and his co-defendants do not want this to be a “personal issue” with Judge Pohl. Bin Attash closed his comments by declaring that the Prosecution does not want the accused to hear or understand anything (presumably in reference to their rights and their waivers to appear at the hearings). Bin Attash:

“We have no motivation to come to court. We have been dealing with our attorneys for a year and a half, and we have not been able to build trust with them. Their hands are bound. The prosecution does not what us to hear or understand or say anything. They don’t want our attorneys to do anything.”

Adam Kirchner is a dual-degree student at Seton Hall University School of Law and the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He is a Research Fellow of the Center for Policy and Research and the Transnational Justice Project at Seton Hall University School of Law

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

For a prosecutor, it is an odd way to “stick to his guns,” but Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor for military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, is refusing to support conspiracy charges against the alleged 9/11 conspirators.  He had previously acceded to dropping the conspiracy charges after the recent reversal in Hamdan. But the Convening Authority, Vice Admiral Bruce MacDonald (Ret.), pushed back by refusing to allow the charges to be dropped. Now the prosecutor is left in an uncomfortable position.

However, experts have noted that the Military Commissions Act of 2009 does not allow anyone, even the Convening Authority, to interfere with or unduly influence the prosecutor’s professional judgement. He may therefor allow the defense motion for dismissal of the conspiracy charges to go uncontested. In theory, he may even argue in support of it.

As noted by James Connell, defense counsel for co-defendant Ammar al Baluchi, this contest between the prosecutor and the Convening Authority emphasizes one of the fundamental weaknesses of the military commissions system: the Convening Authority has both judicial and prosecutorial duties. According to Connell, “The Convening Authority’s insistence on prosecution of the conspiracy charge at the same time it controls defense funding and hand-picks the panel of military officers to hear the case illustrates this conflict of interest.”

So far it seems that all the players are exercising independent judgment. However, these events should be a warning to Congress that the system they designed is far from perfect, with flaws that have long since been addressed in our federal courts. The use of a convening authority for courts martial allows a commander to balance the need for strong discipline with the exigencies of maintaining a functioning military. Such considerations simply do not exist for accused terrorists. As in federal prosecutions, terrorism and war crime charges should be brought by a purely prosecutorial authority, with an independent judicial authority controlling which charges may proceed. This is precisely what we have in federal courts.

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow

Center for Policy & Research