Pentagon says glitch triggered Guantánamo war court kill switch

This 2013 U.S. military handout photo shows a view of the national security war court from the judge’s bench.
This 2013 U.S. military handout photo shows a view of the national security war court from the judge’s bench.

A Pentagon official attributed to a computer glitch an episode last week when somebody mistakenly silenced the war court feed to the public, and said some software is being fixed.

Friday morning, for no apparent reason during a USS Cole case hearing, somebody hit a kill switch that stopped the public from hearing the proceedings. A red light flashed inside the national security courtroom. Spectators got static-sounding noise.

The episode was of particular interest because on Jan. 31, 2013, the chief of the judiciary, Army Col. James L. Pohl, ordered anyone with a kill switch besides himself and his security officer to disconnect. Earlier that week, a hidden hand had silenced the court, enraging the judge.

RELATED: Guantánamo judge unplugs hidden censors from Sept. 11 trial

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. TAYLOR JONES GETTY

The kill switch is essentially a mute button on a computerized touch pad. It is meant to be used by the judge or his Court Security Officer, an intelligence analyst knowledgeable in classified matters, to prevent the public from hearing state secrets. Because the public gets to listen in on a 40-second delay, the device gives the judge or security officer time to hear something the public isn’t allowed to know, then stop people from hearing it.

On Friday, the USS Cole case judge, Air Force Col. Vance Spath, announced in court that “somebody inadvertently hit one of the buttons that would do that without me authorizing it.”

Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a Pentagon spokesman, described the problem as perhaps caused by a phantom switch left inside the war court technicians’ control booth at the back of the court. No switch was visible on the court’s video screen control panel, he said.

But it still existed, meaning that if a technician accidentally swiped it, he could mute the court and send out white noise to gallery viewers without realizing he had done it.

The software was being fixed, Sakrisson said.

“It’s potentially an issue of residual code leftover from an iteration of the control panel software,” the major said. He said it “may have inadvertently resulted in functionality that was not visible to the user.”

Sakrisson also said that, the way the court is currently configured, the judge no longer has a kill switch where he sits. Instead, the Court Security Officer and the person in court creating a record of the proceedings, called the court reporter, each has one.

The intelligence analyst apparently has the authority to silence the court on his own; the court reporter, who sits just below the judge’s bench, is supposed to do it by direction of the judge.

Defense lawyers blamed the CIA for the 2013 censorship episode. The audio was silenced as a lawyer for the alleged 9/11 terror attack mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, began to discuss an unclassified filing about the covert agency’s secret prison network, known as Black Sites.

RELATED: Sept. 11 trial lawyer says CIA had its finger on Guantánamo’s mute button

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg