Guantánamo

Sept. 11 trial judge halts proceedings over Guantánamo Bay shuttle policy

Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Paul F. Zukunft being escorted across Guantánamo Bay by Port Security Unit 308, Maritime Security Detachment in this April 29, 2015, photo released by the Detention Center.
Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Paul F. Zukunft being escorted across Guantánamo Bay by Port Security Unit 308, Maritime Security Detachment in this April 29, 2015, photo released by the Detention Center. U.S. ARMY

The judge in the 9/11 case on Friday froze the proceedings, putting next month’s pretrial hearings on hold over a new policy that denies him a fast boat across Guantánamo Bay, a change that he said would prevent him from sequestering himself from other war court travelers such as terror victims, witnesses and reporters.

Army Col. James L. Pohl, the judge and chief of the war court judiciary, has abated proceedings in the past over other issues he saw as interference in his role or invasion of his decision-making zone. In February 2015, he pulled the plug on proceedings after the Pentagon adopted a rule that would move all war judges to the remote Navy base until their trials were completed. The Pentagon swiftly withdrew the rule.

READ MORE ABOUT THE SEPT. 11 TRIAL

On Friday, he issued an abatement order over a new procedure issued June 23 by the new prison commander, Rear Adm. Edward B. Cashman, for handling how people are processed as they depart for the Pentagon’s charter flight that brings war court staff, lawyers, media and others specifically for a hearing in Pohl’s court.

Pohl does not specify what Cashman did in his offending procedure, called “Requirements for Use of Dedicated Military Aircraft and other Transportation Assets.” But an official with knowledge of the issue said Cashman concluded he could no longer have a Port Security Unit, a Coast Guard fast boat, bring Pohl and his staff across the bay while other court participants ride a scheduled ferry.

In practice, the judge and his staff for years have steadfastly segregated themselves from other war court travelers. They check in for flights separately at Andrews Air Force Base and at Guantánamo typically occupy a VIP lounge and board the plane at the last minute. Pohl and his staff also have been whisked across the bay separately in a fast boat to avoid contact with other case participants — from the prosecutors and linguists who sit behind them to the defense attorneys and reporters, who are assigned the back of the plane.

Pohl said the new policy “causes the military judge and his staff to be commingled with counsel, witnesses, victim family members, the media and non-governmental organizations throughout the entire in- and out-processing procedure.”

On the ferry, special escorts sometimes stick close to the relatives of people killed on Sept. 11, to make sure nobody talks to them, unless the so-called Victim Family Members expressly want to talk to others. But most other war court participants do sit or stand together and chat during the 20-minute ferry crossing.

The judge had scheduled a week of hearings in the Sept. 11 mass murder case for July 17-21.

Accused mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged accomplices are accused of plotting the hijackings that killed 2,976 people in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. It is still in the pretrial phase.

In his order, Pohl said: “Such commingling threatens the integrity of the proceedings and the independence of the military judge.”

Pohl noted in his order that he “has consistently sought to avoid any appearance of bias, and has assiduously avoided commingling with counsel for the parties, victim family members, witnesses, non-governmental organizations and the media.”

As noted in a 2012 profile of the judge, Pohl could for a time be seen checking into Andrews flights on his own, essentially incognito because he wore civilian clothes rather than his Army colonel’s uniform. Once he took on the Sept. 11 case and he raised his profile he took to sequestering himself and letting staff check him in.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

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