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June 21, 2013

9/11 Trial Pauses for Jet Takeoff, Microphone Slip

Not a day goes by at Guantanamo, it seems, without some kind of hiccup in the pre-trial hearing of Khalid Shaikh Muhammad and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators. Every day we have been here observing, there have been technical issues that are apparently impossible to overcome, and bizarre complications that halt the proceedings.

Thursday, former Joint Task Force (JTF) Guantanamo Commander, Rear Admiral David Woods continued testifying about his orders controlling communications between defense attorneys and their clients. Admiral Woods testified from an office on a San Diego Naval base via video feed, which was already malfunctioning on Wednesday. Thursday, not only could Admiral Woods not see documents shown to him on the feed (the defense attorneys eventually just resorted to reading the documents aloud), but the court actually had to pause for the noise of a jet taking off outside the office to subside.

Military witnesses are being allowed to testify by video feed as a courtesy, but the interference with proceedings got so bad that Judge Pohl warned the prosecution that if the technology couldn't be made to work properly, these witnesses will have to be brought down to Guantanamo. It seems shocking that in what could arguably be one of the most important cases in U.S. history, military witnesses would not be able to (or want to, for that matter) appear in person at Guantanamo.

Meanwhile, one of the defense attorneys, Commander Walter Ruiz inadvertently caused another grinding halt in the day by asking Admiral Woods about what intelligence agencies were present at Guantanamo while he was JTF Commander. As Ruiz asked Admiral Woods if the CIA was present on the base, the prosecution's Joanna Baltes objected, and in the ensuing debate over the objection, the audio in the observation room suddenly cut out.

This case has already had a problem with mysterious audio cuts, as my colleague Daphne Eviatar wrote about here, when a mystery censor cut the feed without even Judge Pohl knowing who did it. Usually, when someone in court says something that is classified, the court security officer is supposed to press a button, which cuts the audio to the press and observer video feeds (which show everything on a 40-second delay), accompanied by a red light and white noise.

But in this case, there was no red light or white noise, just a very confused observation room. After a recess to figure everything out, chief prosecutor Brigadier General Mark Martins told the court that Baltes had simply forgotten to press the button to speak on her microphone. Commander Ruiz was not convinced.

The rest of the day was spent (in between video feed difficulties) with the defense attorneys continuing to question Admiral Woods about his contradictory and legally unethical communication guidelines I described yesterday, and started questioning an actual live witness, Admiral Woods' legal adviser Captain Thomas Welsh about those same guidelines, before breaking for the day.

Friday will be the last day of this round of hearings at Guantanamo, and while I'm hoping for an uneventful, by-the-books day in the military commission proceedings, the previous four days don't leave me optimistic. Many of these problems wouldn’t happen, or could be easily solved, in a federal court. At the very least, we wouldn't have to pause the proceedings for a jet taking off. But here we are.