After a week of hearings ended in the biggest terrorism case in U.S. history, this much had been resolved: Court microphones were altered so speakers must push a button to talk, instead of hitting a button to mute any sound.
Such has been the pace of the proceedings in a military courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other accused plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were arraigned nine months ago -- for a second time.
“It’s painfully slow,” said Eve Bucca, who came to witness this week’s hearings before a military tribunal after her husband, a former New York City fire marshal, died in the World Trade Center more than a decade ago.
The ruling on courtroom microphones by the judge, U.S. Army Colonel James Pohl, marked the biggest advance in the week of pre-trial hearings that ended yesterday. It will be at least a year before the trial begins, as defense lawyers and prosecutors wrangle over the fairness of the proceedings.
Defense lawyers have expressed growing distrust in the tribunal, claiming that the government is eavesdropping on confidential meetings with their clients. Those concerns have since stalled other preliminary motions in the case.
“It will take a long, long time and it will not be efficient,” said David Nevin, an attorney for Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. He said the military tribunal system -- with unresolved questions such as whether the U.S. Constitution applies -- makes it more difficult to provide an adequate defense.
As prosecutors seek the death penalty for a crime that killed almost 3,000 people in the attacks, they defended the tribunal and denied any eavesdropping.
The chief prosecutor, Army Brigadier General Mark Martins, stressed the importance of “methodically taking up these issues in a context of national security” and making sure that the concerns of the accused are properly addressed.
“These are going to be highly adversarial, contested cases,” Martins said.
He defended the decision to pause consideration of other pre-trial motions to investigate the eavesdropping claims.
“The court needed to stop what we were doing to look into it,” he said yesterday.
Defense lawyers focused this week on revelations that some rooms used for confidential client meetings had microphones in the ceilings resembling smoke detectors.
The prison camp’s top legal adviser, Navy Captain Thomas Welsh, testified in court that the microphones were never used to monitor confidential conversations.
At a news conference yesterday, defense lawyers said they remain concerned and are determined to investigate whether any monitoring occurred.
“Now it turns out there obviously were listening devices in the rooms where we met our clients,” said James Harrington, an attorney for Ramzi bin al Shibh, a Yemeni accused of financing the Sept. 11 hijackers.
“It’s a serious problem, a serious violation,” Harrington said. “We may have to seek remedies.”
Deliberations on the eavesdropping issue were derailed this week after lawyers said prison guards had improperly seized confidential legal correspondence from the cells of the accused. That led to hours of testimony yesterday on how mail is distributed and screened at the military’s prison camp.
In wrapping up the week’s hearings, Pohl said yesterday he would postpone issuing an order on the mail controversy to give both sides time to propose a remedy.
Defense lawyers had filed an emergency motion seeking to bar the military from monitoring their confidential talks with the accused after discovering two weeks ago that a secret government official, known as an “original classification authority,” had cut off audio and video feeds of proceedings from the military courtroom to the public.
Pohl, who indicated he was as surprised as defense attorneys by a cutoff that he hadn’t authorized, issued an order making clear that he has sole authority to censor such feeds.
Defense attorneys said the incident convinced them that their private conversations also could be monitored by the government because of sensitive microphones in the courtroom and listening devices in holding cells.
To ease concerns about monitoring in the courtroom, Pohl ordered that the microphones be altered so that they remain off until a speaker pushes a button to talk. The prior system left the microphones on, requiring anyone near the devices to push a button to mute it.
The current military tribunal has been under way since the arraignment in May. Mohammed and the other defendants are accused of plotting to use hijacked airliners to kill almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the Pentagon in Virginia, and in Pennsylvania.
They are charged with conspiring to finance, train and direct the 19 hijackers who seized the four planes, terrorism, hijacking aircraft, conspiracy, murder in violation of the laws of war and attacking civilians.
Bucca, the widow of a Sept. 11 victim, expressed some frustration at the pace of court proceedings, even as she defended it.
“It takes as long as it takes,” Bucca said. “I say that because I don’t want anyone let off on a technicality.”
The case is U.S. v. Mohammed, Military Commissions Trial (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba).