Guantánamo guards seize confidential Sept. 11 terror trial defense files

U.S. Army military judge Col. James L. Pohl, shown in this July 7, 2005 file photo at Fort Hood, Texas, is the chief of the Guantánamo military commissions judiciary.
U.S. Army military judge Col. James L. Pohl, shown in this July 7, 2005 file photo at Fort Hood, Texas, is the chief of the Guantánamo military commissions judiciary. ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the latest challenge to attorney-client confidentiality here, prison guards on Wednesday seized the court-approved, non-networked laptop computers and hard drives issued to the accused Sept. 11 attack plotters to prepare for their death-penalty trials.

Army Col. James L. Pohl, the case judge, ordered the Guantánamo detention center staff not to look at the material shared by defense lawyers with the accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators. He ordered the prison to explain what happened to defense attorneys.

“Laptops were seized, not powered on, pending further order from you,” said prosecutor Clay Trivett.

The development comes on the heels of three lawyers in Guantánamo’s other death-penalty case quitting over an ethics issue involving a top secret allegation of invasion of attorney-client privacy. Then Monday, the prison denied the Sept. 11 team defense lawyers access to their traditional meeting site for the week, for a classified reason, before reversing itself after inquiry by the judge.

Miami Herald guide: About the Sept. 11 war crimes trial

Pohl had just opened court Wednesday with a reminder that attorney-client meetings are “fundamental to a fair adjudication of this case” when defense attorney Cheryl Bormann announced the new problem.

Privileged material had been seized from her client, alleged plot deputy Walid Bin Attash, as he was being moved to the Camp Justice court compound. Attorney Jay Connell, defending Mohammed’s nephew Ammar al Baluchi, added that his team had just scanned all his client’s privileged documents, at the urging of the government, and put digital copies in Baluchi’s laptop. Then, Connell said, his Pentagon staff team shredded the hard copies.

The five captives are in their fifth year of pretrial hearings in the case that alleges they directed, trained or helped with finances for the 19 hijackers who crashed passenger planes into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 3,000 people were killed, and thousands more injured.

The case still has no trial date. The lawyers and judge are still establishing what secret evidence the defense lawyers can see from the captives’ three- and four-year stay in CIA custody. Another cause for delay has been a long string of defense lawyers’ complaints about government interference into their privileged work — from the CIA’s having the clandestine capacity to mute court audio to FBI agents trying to turn defense team members into informants to the discovery of listening devices that looked like smoke detectors in legal meeting rooms.

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It was not known what caused the prison to forbid defense lawyers from using their usual meeting sites in a compound of huts containing prison cells called Camp Echo II. Monday afternoon, with the court closed to the public, the judge heard secret testimony about some classified problem at the prison that, Pohl said, “required diversion of guard force personnel.”

The judge ordered prosecutors to file a memo by Nov. 21 outlining “remedial measures to enhance resources going forward” to make sure the issue didn’t arise again.

At the detention center, spokesman Navy Capt. John Robinson was unable to provide an explanation for what happened at the clandestine Camp 7 prison housing 15 former CIA captives.