Guantanamo's Anonymous Censor

Sunday, 3 February 2013

When a suspected terrorist mastermind goes on trial at the Guantanamo Bay military commission, strange things can happen.

Last week, midway through the pretrial hearings for five accused 9/11 plotters, an anonymous outside censor unilaterally blacked out an audiovisual feed that provides public access to journalists reporting on the proceedings. The incident frustrated the military judge, who is supposed to have total control over the courtroom, and in the process illustrated the acute tension between open justice and obsessive-compulsive national security secrecy.

Here's how it went down, according to Jason Leopold, a reporter for Truthout who was in attendance:

...the audio feed to the proceedings was interrupted Monday when defence attorney David Nevin, who represents [accused 9/11 planner Khalid Shaikh] Mohammed, discussed the title of an exhibit pertaining to the CIA's secret black site prisons, where the self-professed 9/11 mastermind and his alleged co-conspirators had been held prior to their transfer to Guantanamo.

When Nevin uttered the word "secret," a warning light, which is silent, positioned on the judge's dais, started to flash and the sound of white noise was fed through the audio feed. Moments later, the monitors inside the gallery went black. The outage lasted three minutes. (The courtroom is visible to members of the gallery but is separated by soundproof glass; the audio feed is delayed by 40 seconds).

The judge, Col. James Pohl, was not happy about the act of censorship because he had not approved it. "If some external body is turning the commission on or off based on their own views of what things ought to be, with no reasonable explanation ... then we’re going to have a little meeting about who turns that light on and off," he said, reported the Huffington Post.

The fascinating debacle raised a number of questions, most importantly: who was this mysterious outside censor, watching proceedings from outside the courtroom and able to hit a "white noise" button on a whim? Leopold's report offers the closest thing to an answer:

It was later revealed by the government that the third party monitoring the hearings who was responsible for the interruption ... was the "original classification authority," or OCA, likely a reference to the CIA since that is the agency that operated the black site prisons.

But the government refused to provide information about whether the censor had been monitoring proceedings from a room at Guantanamo or was in fact located somewhere in the United States (like, say, the CIA's headquarters at Langley, Virginia).

"Who is the invisible hand?" asked one of the defence attorneys, not content with the lack of clarity. "Who is the master of puppets?"

It's a question that's difficult to answer with 100 percent certainty, given the secrecy. But whoever was responsible, he or she is not likely to be hitting the blackout button again any time soon. On Thursday judge Pohl ordered the government to unplug any outside censors. “This is the last time that will happen,” he said. “No third party can unilaterally cut off the broadcast.”

A rare triumph for transparency, it seems.

[You can a detailed report about the case, United States v. Mohammed, et al., here, courtesy of the Public Record.]

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