Guantánamo questioning sparks tense exchange between lawyers

Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, a military attorney, is currently the lone lawyer assigned to the case of Saudi Mustafa al Hawsawi, awaiting a death-penalty trial at Guantanamo.
Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, a military attorney, is currently the lone lawyer assigned to the case of Saudi Mustafa al Hawsawi, awaiting a death-penalty trial at Guantanamo.

The military judge in the Sept. 11 conspiracy trial abruptly cleared the court Thursday after a defense attorney said he was threatened by a prosecutor during a tense standoff over what U.S. intelligence agencies are working at the base.

Navy Cmdr Walter Ruiz, a veteran death-penalty defense attorney, was questioning Rear Adm. David Woods, a former prison commander, when a Department of Justice attorney interrupted. Court stopped. Ruiz huddled with several prosecutors.

“You’re playing with fire,” one said.

At issue in the hearing is who and what organizations influenced Woods as he restricted attorney-client communications ahead of last May’s arraignment of the five men accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings that killed 2,976 people.

He was in charge of the prison, even what the accused could or could not wear to court, a year ago when the alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and four other alleged conspirators were arraigned. Thursday Woods testified by video teleconference from San Diego while Mohammed sat in court wearing a jungle camouflage hunting jacket that Woods had banned.

Woods already had testified that nobody ever told him that the CIA had input into an order that regulated the work of defense attorneys for the 9/11 accused and other former CIA captives. Ruiz, defense lawyer for Mustafa al Hawsawi, was asking the admiral what intelligence organizations he knew operated at Guantánamo during Woods’ 10-month tenure, which ended a year ago.

The line of questioning apparently so alarmed the Department of Justice’s attorney with expertise in state secrets, Joanna Baltes, that she mistakenly referred to Ruiz as “Commander Reyes,” another Navy lawyer from another war court case in which the accused was waterboarded.

Ruiz turned to the judge, Army Col. James Pohl, in exasperation. “If she wants me to use the term ‘agency who shall remain nameless’ I can do that.”

Baltes took Ruiz aside and told him something. Another prosecutor chimed in, out of earshot of the microphones.

Ruiz then returned to the podium and announced, twice, “I will not be threatened by the prosecution.”

Ruiz also sought to argue that it’s not the prosecution’s job — but that of a specialized court security officer at the judge’s elbow — to police what the public can hear. Both the judge and the security officer have a kill switch that can mute audio to spectators.

Pohl declared the whole matter better discussed in a closed session. It’s called a 505H, and meant for lawyers and the judge to discuss the likelihood of secret evidence coming out in court.

The judge ordered the Army guards to take the accused 9/11 conspirators to their holding cells, and the court be cleared. But not before attorney David Nevin, defending Mohammed, protested closure of the court to his client and the other four men in the death-penalty proceedings.

When they returned to court 90 minutes later, Ruiz had switched topics and it was never clear which one of the alphabet soup of U.S. intelligence agencies on base Woods might have uttered — CIA, FBI, DIA, NCIS.

Later, the chief prosecutor Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins said the remark that Ruiz saw as a threat was: “You’re playing with fire.”

Martins called the exchange “a moment of heat not uncommon in criminal trial practice.” He did not identify which prosecutor said it, but said it was intended “as a genuine caution — admittedly one delivered emphatically by the member of the prosecution.”

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