WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is building a second courtroom for war crimes trials at Guantánamo Bay that will exclude the public from the chamber, the latest step towards secrecy in the nearly 20-year-old detention operation.
The new courtroom will allow two military judges to hold proceedings simultaneously from 2023.
On these occasions, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the four other men who are accused of plotting the September 11, 2001 attacks would have audiences in the existing chamber, which has a gallery for the public.
Smaller things would be held in the new $ 4 million chamber. Members of the public seeking to watch these proceedings at Guantanamo would be shown a delayed video shown in a separate building.
This is the latest retreat from transparency in already secret grassroots national security matters, where the military and intelligence agencies have restricted what the public can see. This includes a ban on photographing sites that were once regularly shown to visitors and a ban on journalists from populated and empty prisons of war.
In the current chamber of the Guantanamo War Tribunal, which opened in 2008, members of the public watching the proceedings live hear the audio with a 40-second delay, enough time for the judge or a Security guard cuts off the sound if they suspect that a classified item has been mentioned.
This allowed viewers in the gallery in January 2013 to see the puzzled gaze of an Army judge after the CIA remotely cut video feeds of the proceedings. Another time, only observers in the room saw guards bring an uncooperative defendant to court, strapped to a restraint chair, followed by a soldier wearing his prosthetic leg.
In 2018, guards set up a hospital bed inside the courtroom for a disabled accused who could not be seen on video feeds.
But the new courtroom, in what is described as a cost-saving measure, does not have such a gallery. Only people with secret clearance, such as members of the intelligence community and specially authorized guards and lawyers, will be allowed into the new room.
To work around this problem, court staff are designing a “virtual gallery with multiple camera angles displayed simultaneously,” said Ron Flesvig, spokesperson for the Office of Military Commissions. The public would be escorted there to watch the proceedings, broadcast with a 40-second delay.
During recess in the current courtroom, lawyers and other court participants often speak with journalists and relatives of victims of terrorist attacks, routine contact reportedly lost with the “virtual gallery”. The same would apply to the ability of a designer to observe the proceedings live.
The construction plan illustrates the continued improvisation at Camp Justice, the court compound in Guantanamo, where the military has used modular structures and tents since 2007 to avoid building more permanent structures, which require congressional approval .
The second tribunal was designed before President Biden took office with the aim of ending detention operations at the Guantánamo Bay base. It is being built in the United States to be assembled at Guantanamo and is expected to be operational by mid-2023, Flesvig said.
Meanwhile, workers can be seen in the courtroom preparing a space adjacent to the existing courtroom for the new one. But Defense Ministry officials have yet to decide where to place the virtual gallery, or calculate the cost, he said.
The new court only has room for three defendants, which is too small for the 9/11 case, unless the judge separates some of the five defendants from the joint death penalty trial.
The plan, however, allows for a scenario of two death penalty cases being tried at the same time. In the 9/11 case, reporters and victims are said to be watching live. But family members and shipmates of the 17 sailors killed in Qaeda’s suicide bombing of the destroyer Cole off Yemen in 2000, who regularly attend the sessions, are said to be kept out of court with other observers, watching video feeds.
It appears to be tailor-made for the conspiracy trial to murder three men who were recently indicted in two terrorist bombings in Indonesia in 2002 and 2003 that killed more than 200 people. Lawyer James R. Hodes, who represents the main accused, Encep Nurjaman, known as Hambali, said that even in the current court, access is far from open.
The public hearing of Mr. Hambali’s indictment in August was tightly controlled by the military, which decides which journalists, law students or human rights defenders can board a Pentagon charter plane to visit. make it to the base. The military also controls access to two remote video sites inside the Pentagon or at Fort Meade in Maryland.
“I have observed trials in Mongolia that were more transparent than that,” Hodes said.
True, some secrets have been declassified, particularly in death penalty cases, which have been mired in pre-trial hearings for about a decade.
A medical expert recently testified in open court about the post-traumatic stress disorder of a prisoner who was waterboarded by the CIA in 2002. Previously, the doctor’s descriptions of the trauma would have been recorded in a classified session that excluded both the public and the prisoner. .
Separately, the intelligence service authorized a public discussion of something defense attorneys had known for years: Under a secret deal, the CIA requisitioned nine FBI agents and temporarily made them agents of the FBI. agency to interrogate prisoners in a network of black sites where the CIA used torture. in his interrogations. The deal is still kept secret, but intelligence agencies revealed its existence last month.
But the new courtroom reflects a trend toward what at times seems like special transparency to choose from.
For example, for 17 years, the military routinely took visiting journalists to detention centers where most captives are held, but demanded that they remove photographs showing cameras, doors and other security procedures. security. Then the military embarked on a consolidation that moved Mr. Mohammed and other CIA detainees from a secret site to the maximum security part of these once showcase facilities – and declared the entire detention area closed. to journalists.
Their empty prison, formerly controlled by the CIA, is also off limits to journalists. Defense lawyers seeking a conservation order at the site describe it as a rapidly deteriorating facility that was clearly unsuitable for prisoners and their guards. A military lawyer who visited recently described dead tarantula carcasses in empty cell blocks.
In 2019, a Navy judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys discussing a new wheelchair-accessible triple-width detention cell in court used the phrase ‘jumbo cell’ – derived from an article in the Miami Herald – 30 times in a single hearing.
Security officials later advised that the cell’s nickname, essentially a description of a security measure, could no longer be used in open court. The ban continues, although the military showed reporters the new giant cell ahead of a hearing on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
“This is an ad hoc classification system,” said James P. Anderson, the security specialist assigned to Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi’s defense team, who spent nights in the cell of the judicial complex. “Things that weren’t categorized before become categorized just because the person looking at them is uncomfortable with their use. It defies all reasonable logic.
On the evening of October 28, an anonymous government official told the judge that a paragraph should be censored from a statement a prisoner was about to read to a military jury about his CIA torture.
The judge considered the request and refused, noting that the statement was unclassified.
In it, prisoner Majid Khan quoted Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA counterterrorism director, as saying in a newspaper article that “mistakes were made” in the operation of a prison in the United States. Particularly macabre CIA known as the Salt Pit. Mr. Khan was tortured there in 2003.
In November, US Marines escorted journalists and others to the legendary Northeast Gate, a gateway to Cuban-controlled territory.
For this visit, tourists were told that they could take selfies at the often photographed doorway, but were prohibited from viewing or posting them.
To reach the gate, motorists pass the remains of Camp X-ray, Guantanamo’s first wartime detention site, now a weed and rodent-infested maze of cells made of chain-link fences. The military officials have a time banned reporters from filming there, citing unspecified security reasons. A senior official intervened. From now on, journalists who meet at the base on January 11 can take photos there – 20 years to the day since the arrival of the first prisoners of the X-ray camp.