Wednesday’s pre-hearings in, United States v. Mohammed, et al., ended in soap opera-esqe drama. The last motion of the day was postponed until Thursday morning when it was announced that the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and two of his co-defendants, had returned to their cells after yesterday’s session to find their attorney-client mail ransacked— and much of it seized.
The news of the ransacking and seizure of attorney-client mail was apropos, given the morning testimony of Lieutenant Alexander Homme, who detailed the attorney-client mail screening process. Pursuant to a Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) Order, it was Homme’s job to screen mail both to and from detainees in their cells as well as in Echo II, the attorney-client meeting room. In short, Homme explained that non-legal mail would be separated from the legal mail, which was vaguely defined as any hand-written or typed documents that were prepared by the attorney, and that legal mail was allowed to pass, non-legal mail was subjected to seizure and further review. Eventually, however, it became clear that legal mail had a somewhat narrow definition, as even exhibits attached to an amicus brief, for example, are not guaranteed to be construed as “legal” for these purposes and thereby pass to a detainee.
Rejected non-legal mail would be seized and delivered to J2, the intelligence agency of Joint Task Force (JTF) at Guantanamo Bay, for inspection. Ms. Bormann, Counsel for Mr. bin ‘Attash, evidenced the difficulty of this process as she recounted, and Homme confirmed, four occasions where he rejected her attempt to deliver legally relevant documents to her client (an Arabic translation of the screening order, the book “Black Banners” that contained a chapter specific to her client’s charges in this case, a NAVY JAG Instruction on JAG ethics, and an amicus brief from the al-Nashiri case that dealt with the same kind of seizure of attorney-client privileged material happening here).
Various defense attorneys noted the problematic nature of the screening process. First, the Order’s vague definition of legal mail makes it tremendously difficult to pass legal documents from attorney to client, and vice versa: what may be considered highly relevant to the defense as part of effective legal, can be construed by the government as non-legal mail and subject to seizure. And second, even if the defense wants to exchange non-legal mail, all of it must first be screened by J2, a process by which it could take months to be cleared and delivered, and still, there is no guarantee that all of the documents will ultimately be delivered.
The reported ransacking and seizure of the accused’s legal mail seemed almost icing on the cake for defense counsel.
J2 Just Might Visit a Local Radio Shack
Next on the stand was Colonel John Vincent Bogdan, Joint Task Guard (JTG) Commander, who is responsible for controlling the attorney-client meeting room at Echo II. Lead by the compelling cross-examination of Mr. Nevin, Learned Counsel for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Bogdan revealed that although he began his commission as JTG Commander in June 2012, it was not until January 31, 2013—two weeks ago—that Bogdan learned of Echo II’s audio capabilities from Captain Welsh. He represented to the court that he had no knowledge of Echo II’s audio capabilities until that point, and assured the court that “they do not audio monitor in Echo II.” After learning of these audio monitoring capabilities, Bogdan issued a verbal order, not a written order, “that there was to be no audio monitoring of attorney-client meetings.”
In a quick witted response, Mr. Nevin asked: “But since you understood there was no audio — excuse me — audio monitoring capability, there was really no reason to order that there be no audio monitoring, right?” Why issue an order to not do something that is already not done? Bogdan said it was necessary to cement the policy.
Thereafter, Mr. Nevin sought answers from Bogdan as to how he took measures to assure that his verbal order would be obeyed. Bogdan confirmed that his guards dismantled the audio monitoring system. They did not remove the system altogether, however, and instead they “disconnect[ed] all the power supplies and secure[d] all the power supply so the system couldn’t be inadvertently turned on.” In other words, he had the electrical cord removed from the wall.
Bogdan also confirmed that J2 owned all of the audio and video technology in Echo II—the cameras, the microphones, and the wires connecting those pieces to the video and audio systems. This past weekend the defense were permitted to enter and observe the audio monitoring system in the control hut for Echo II. The audio system is called Louroe AP-4. It is a non-recording system, but it has an audio output jack in the back of it where one could simply plug-in a digital recording device—try Radio Shack.
The defense “tag-team” made the point, and Bogdan admitted, that as easy as it was to conceal from Bogdan the fact that Echo II has audio monitoring capabilities for over a year into his commission, J2 could also have just as easily purchased tiny microphones from Radio Shack and put them in Echo II without him knowing.
Balancing Competing Interests: National Security v. Protecting Attorney-Client Privileged Communications
Easy to lose in the drama and vagaries of another day in GTMO, the day’s pre-hearings were an emergency interlocutory motion to investigate into intrusions on attorney-client and attorney-attorney privileged communications.
JTF-GTMO wants security in Echo II for national and camp security reasons. The defense teams want to be relieved of the reasonable fear that they are being listened to in the courtroom and in Echo II. All seemingly reasonable concerns.
Ms. Bormann suggested a remedy—that the audio system be completely removed (maybe destroyed and trashed) and the guards instructed to monitor the attorney-client meetings in Echo II from chairs outside the room, leaving the door open but having them sit far enough away so that they cannot hear the conversations inside. The court seemed skeptical, and I suspect both prosecution and defense will continue to be so as well.
Josh Wirtshafter is a fellow at the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University School of Law student. He is a member of the Class of 2014 and is a 2011 graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, where he majored in Religious Studies.