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Censorship row fuels mood of paranoia at Guantanamo trial

In this Pentagon-approved sketch, observers watch the September 11 hearings in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on January 31, 2013
In this Pentagon-approved sketch by court artist Janet Hamlin, observers watch the September 11 hearings from the viewing gallery in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on January 31, 2013. Attorneys and detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison have always been under clos

Attorneys and detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison have always been under close watch, but when a judge complained of a hidden censor it took the paranoia to a new level.

On Thursday, the military judge overseeing pre-trial hearings for the alleged perpetrators of the September 11 attacks said the US government had censored the proceedings from outside the courtroom, and ordered it to stop.

With Congress having blocked attempts to try the high-profile detainees on US soil, the military has struggled to strike a balance between holding reasonably transparent hearings while protecting classified information.

In particular, the government has attempted to prevent testimony about harsh US detention and interrogation practices leaking to the outside world.

Lawyers have long said their conversations with detainees are recorded, with Cheryl Bormann, attorney for Yemeni defendant Walid bin Attash, calling the eavesdropping a "direct violation of the rights of the defense."

And those following the trial are well aware of the security officer next to the judge who cuts off the delayed sound feed to the press gallery and audience chamber when classified information is being discussed, activating a red light.

But when Judge James Pohl angrily revealed that another government minder outside the courtroom also had the authority to shut off the sound, it seemed as though the censorship had reached new heights.

"The paranoia level has kicked up a notch," said James Connell, a lawyer for Pakistani defendant Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, adding that at this point the definition of top secret extends to "what they're gonna have for lunch."

The external censor -- publicly referred to as the original classification authority (OCA) but widely believed to be the CIA -- has sought to prevent any discussion of harsh interrogation techniques, viewed by many as torture, in secret prisons run by the agency during the early years of the War on Terror.

The harsh interrogations included the use of techniques like waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning widely regarded as torture, which has since been banned by President Barack Obama.

As to the question of whether the CIA engaged in torture during the George W. Bush administration, "There really are secrets intended to be protected," said chief prosecutor Mark Martins, justifying the censorship of the trial.

But attorneys for the defendants said that having a censor outside the courtroom who could overrule even the military judge was going too far.

"Here we have a situation where a third party, a government agency, is able to shut these proceedings down," said David Nevin, an attorney for self-declared September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

"What kind of a system is that?" he added.

"If this had happened in a federal court, this proceeding had been disrupted, there would have been hell to pay if the judge didn't know about it," said Jim Harrington, a lawyer for Yemeni suspect Ramzi bin al-Shibh.

Pohl himself argued that "the judge and only the judge" had the right to decide what happened in his courtroom and ruled that all censorship be carried out inside its walls.

The judge said the "public has no unfettered right to access classified info. However, the only person who is authorized to close the courtroom is the judge."

"This order takes effect immediately," he added.

Thursday was the last day of the latest round of pre-trial hearings. The five defendants, including Mohammed, were not present as they are boycotting the sessions.

The 9/11 trial at the US base on the southeastern tip of Cuba is not expected to start for at least a year.

The five men accused of plotting the suicide attacks against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, which killed nearly 3,000 people, face the death penalty if convicted. The next hearings are scheduled to begin February 11.

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