Use of white noise to block sound at Guantanamo 9/11 hearing was an error, Pentagon says

 
 
In this photo of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin and approved for release by the U.S. Department of Defense, accused Sept. 11 co-conspirator Walid bin Attash is shown while attending his military hearing at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Saturday, May 5, 2012.
In this photo of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin and approved for release by the U.S. Department of Defense, accused Sept. 11 co-conspirator Walid bin Attash is shown while attending his military hearing at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Saturday, May 5, 2012.

McClatchy Newspapers

The Pentagon on Wednesday acknowledged that a court security officer at Guantanamo last weekend erred when he activated a button that cut the audio feed during a hearing for five men accused of plotting the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The button, which replaces sound from the courtroom with white noise, is intended to protect national security secrets from inadvertently being revealed to reporters and members of the public who are watching proceedings through a closed-circuit television transmission. But nothing said in court during the time the button was in use Saturday was sensitive, the Pentagon said.

Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said Guantanamo prosecutors recognized the error immediately. "The government’s chief prosecutor was adamant that the accidentally ’white noised’ portion be restored as quickly as possible, having been in the courtroom to witness the statement,” Breasseale said in an email. “Upon completion of a thorough security review, the Office of Military Commissions did just that."

The use of the white-noise button occurred as Air Force Capt. Michael Schwartz was objecting to the treatment of his client, Walid bin Attash, who is accused of training some of the 9/11 hijackers. In the course of his statement, Schwartz said that he had replaced the court-issued headphones bin Attash had been issued to hear the translation of the hearing because “the torture that my client was subjected to by the men and women wearing the big boy pants down at the CIA makes it impossible . . .”

The rest of the statement could not be heard because of the security officer’s action, the Pentagon said. A transcript of the bleeped-out portion showed it consisted of a 21-word exchange during which the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, cautioned Schwartz.

“Captain?” the judge said. “Yes, sir?” Schwartz replied. “You know the rules,” Pohl said. “Your honor, the rules with respect to what?” Schwartz answered. Then Schwartz said to Pohl: “Your honor, a brief record reflection.”

What statements can be made in open court at Guantanamo is a sensitive issue, particularly as it relates to how the accused were treated during the years they were held secretly by the CIA, which subjected them to harsh interrogation techniques many people consider torture, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and physical slaps. Under CIA rules, any discussion of the treatment is considered classified, and defense attorneys have been prohibited from revealing what their clients have told them about their time in the CIA’s clandestine prison system.

News organizations covering Guantanamo have objected, however, to efforts to close hearings at Guantanamo where such issues might be addressed. In an extraordinary appearance at Guantanamo last month, an attorney for a group of news organizations, including McClatchy, argued that much of what might be discussed is already known to the public through government documents that have been declassified.

In his arguments before Col. Pohl, attorney David A. Schulz asked that if such proceedings are closed, a redacted transcript be made available as quickly as possible.

Schwartz’s use of the words “big boy pants” was a reference to a recent interview by the CIA’s former deputy director of operations, Jose Rodriguez, who used the term in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” to imply that critics of harsh interrogation techniques lacked a mature understanding of the battle against terrorism.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the use of the white-noise button at the 9/11 suspects' hearing was the first it had been employed. In fact, the button had been pressed in February during a hearing for Majid Khan, a terrorist suspect who pleaded guilty in return for a possible reduction in his sentence. The button was pressed then when Khan was discussing his imprisonment by the CIA.

Email: mseibel@mcclatchydc.com Twitter: @markseibel

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