Judge rejects Guantánamo defense bid to televise USS Cole trial


The chief judge of the Guantánamo war court has rejected a defense bid to get the Pentagon to televise the USS Cole bombing trial from the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba.

In his two-page ruling Judge James Pohl, an army colonel, said he didn’t have the authority to order the broadcasts. Only the Secretary of Defense can authorize it, he said.

Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, a Saudi-born former CIA captive, is accused of masterminding the October 2000 suicide bombing of the warship off Yemen that killed 17 American sailors. His death penalty trial before U.S. military officers could start in November, although motions and discovery are expected to delay it.

Defense lawyers, who have derided the proceedings as a “kangaroo court” rigged to win convictions, asked Pohl to order the Pentagon to provide live video feeds of the trial to C-SPAN, FOX, CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS. Prosecutors argued that military commissions are modeled after federal criminal trials, which unlike state courts don’t allow broadcasts either.

Pohl is the same judge presiding at the military commission for alleged 9/11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four accused co-conspirators. Although his USS Cole case ruling wouldn’t automatically apply to the Sept. 11 trial, there is no reason to think the judge wouldn’t apply the same reasoning.

In rejecting Nashiri trial broadcasts, Pohl also invoked a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court case, Estes v Texas, that found the public’s right to be informed about court proceedings is satisfied if reporters are free to attend and report on the proceedings. Pohl quoted from the ruling — “the line is drawn at the courthouse door” — to say reporters get no greater constitutional rights inside a courtroom than “any other member of the public.”

In the case of Guantánamo, the remote base in southeast Cuba whose access is controlled by the Pentagon, the military does airlift up to 60 members of the media plus legal observers and victims of the USS Cole attack to watch the military proceedings live — from behind a soundproofed window on a 40-second sound delay. The audio delay is designed to let a court security officer use white noise to censor classified information that is spoken in court.

Other members of the general public can watch the proceedings via closed-circuit TV broadcasts to an auditorium at Fort Meade in Maryland. Families of the sailors killed aboard the warship Cole as well as victims of the attack get a private viewing room at the U.S. Navy base in Norfolk, Va.

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