Guantanamo officials deny eavesdropping on Sept. 11 defendants
By Richard A. Serrano | Tribune Washington Bureau | Published: February 13, 2013
FORT MEADE, Md. -- Top officials at the U.S. Naval Base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, denied Tuesday that hidden microphones or other devices were installed in the courtroom, meeting huts and prison compound to enable government intelligence officials to eavesdrop on confidential sessions between defense lawyers and five detainees in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The witnesses also testified that legal mail for the detainees is not routinely opened and reviewed, except during prisonwide inspections to check for contraband.
The officials were called by the detainees' lawyers, who are complaining that government officials have been spying on the defense. The judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, has yet to rule on whether the military tribunal process has been compromised by the alleged eavesdropping.
Navy Capt. Thomas L. Welsh, the staff judge advocate at the prison, said microphones and video cameras were hidden around the prison, such as in smoke detectors, but only to help the staff monitor security.
"The person sitting in the room wouldn't know it was a microphone," said Welsh as he examined a picture of a smoke detector from a private meeting hut for attorneys and defendants. "It looks like a smoke detector."
But, he insisted, "we don't listen in. ... Under my watch, definitely, we just don't listen in."
Welsh said, however, that some prisoners' legal mail was seized in a 2011 prisonwide inspection, including letters for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind.
"It was taken and returned," Welsh said. "The commander had security concerns and he did it."
Former Guantanamo Bay military lawyer Ramon Torres, now an Army lieutenant colonel, testified that the 2011 "baseline inspection" was conducted after some prison contraband was discovered. He said mail related to legal issues was opened before it reached the detainees, the contents inspected, and that he "stamped the back pages." But, he said, "I never turned it round and read the front page."
Nevertheless, Torres said he knew it was unethical to be handling their legal defense mail, and he did not like it. It caused him high blood pressure, he said, and his hard feelings led to his replacement at the prison.
"A third witness, Maurice Elkins, director of courtroom technology, testified it would be almost impossible for outside intelligence officials, known by the ambiguous acronym OCA for Original Classification Authorities, to tap into private defense conversations in court and record them.
But, he conceded, "I do not know what the OCA's capability is." He said, "I wouldn't know OCA if I walked next to OCA on the street or played basketball with OCA."
The others defendants are Ramzi Binalshib, the alleged Sept. 11 pilot cell manager; Ammar al-Baluchi, aka Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Mustafa Ahmed Hawsawi, alleged al-Qaida financiers; and Walid bin Attash, an alleged al-Qaida training camp steward. All have pleaded not guilty.
The hearings are being simulcast at Fort Meade.