Kafkaesque scenes as secrecy rules in 9/11 death penalty court hearings
Secrecy issues slow down proceedings
Detainees sit in a holding area watched by military police at Camp X-Ray inside naval base Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in this January 11, 2002 file photo. Photograph: US department of defence/Reuters
A red light sits between the military judge and the court security officer. If any information considered “classified” is disclosed in court, either man can press a censor button and the red light will flash.
An audio feed broadcasting the proceedings to a public gallery on a 40-second delay is cut. White noise is fed into the gallery speakers where observers sit behind three panes of soundproof glass, blocking out sound from the courtroom.
Welcome to the Guántanamo military commissions. This week the court has been hearing pretrial motions in the death penalty cases against the five men accused of planning the hijackings of four commercial aircraft in the September 2001 attacks that led to the deaths of 2,976 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Reporters, two sketch artists and non-government organisations watched proceedings from the public gallery this week. Five family members of the 9/11 victims and two New York firefighters injured at the World Trade Center also attended.
The courtroom set-up leads to comical moments. The delay in the audiovisual feed means the gallery can see the judge sitting down in court while his seat remains empty on the television screens for 40 seconds.
Testimony taken from witnesses appearing via a sketchy video-link from the US adds even more comedy, and delays – many, many delays.
The blizzard of acronyms and numerical codes to identify each motion, coupled with rigorous security procedures to be followed in and around the court, turns this US military legal action into a Kafkaesque other world.
There was confusion in court yesterday when defence lawyers claimed the audio feed to the gallery and to the interpreters translating the proceedings for the defendants was cut off briefly. (It later transpired that a prosecution lawyer forgot to press their microphone button when they spoke.)
Analysis of intelligence
Prior to the interruption, Guántanamo’s former commander, Admiral David Woods, was being questioned by navy commander Walter Ruiz, who represents the alleged money courier to the 9/11 hijackers Mustafa al-Hawsawi, on the collection and analysis of intelligence at the US naval base.
Prosecutors become jumpy when the subject of intelligence is raised in the hearings.
At pretrial hearings in January a mystery censor triggered the alarm when the hearings turned to the secret CIA “black sites” where the 9/11 accused were held until their transfer to Guántanamo for trial in September 2006.
Yesterday, one of the prosecution lawyers, Joanna Baltes, raised concerns about Ruiz’s line of questioning. Ruiz facetiously told the judge that he could use the term “the agency who shall remain nameless,” if it was preferred, referring to the CIA, the constant elephant in this courtroom and the government agency that runs the secretive Camp Seven on the base that holds the so-called high-value detainees including the 9/11 five.
After conferring privately with Baltes and another prosecutor, Ruiz returned to the microphone, somewhat agitated.“I will not be threatened by the prosecution; I will not have that in court,” he said.
The proceedings then broke off for a private session. Any time information deemed potentially “classified” (secret to everyone else) is mentioned, the proceedings move to a private session to decide whether the evidence can be heard in open court. This is called a “505H” hearing.