Lawyers for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners charged in the Sept. 11 attacks urged a military judge Friday to put proceedings on hold because of alleged security flaws in their computer network, an argument dismissed by the prosecution as merely an attempt to stall the case.
The lawyers said they had no confidence that their private emails and confidential files are safe as they wrapped up three days of jargon-filled testimony on network security at the U.S. base in Cuba. The defense teams asked the judge to suspend future proceedings until a secure network could be established for their exclusive use.
"To keep going at this point without a secure infrastructure is to penalize my client, who is looking at the possibility of death, and it undermines the integrity of the system," said Cheryl Bormann, a civilian attorney for defendant Walid bin Attash.
Ed Ryan, a civilian Department of Justice prosecutor, said the defense complaints about the computer network were exaggerated and that there was no evidence of significant data loss. The request for the suspension of proceedings was "the emergency motion to abate du jour," he said, comparing it to an earlier defense request to halt the case because of allegations of government eavesdropping on their private meetings.
"We had to stop everything else and spend days proving no one was listening. This time we had to prove no one was reading," Ryan said. "But at least for these few days, they did in fact shut us down."
This was the sixth round of pretrial hearings since the five prisoners were arraigned in May 2012 on charges that include terrorism, hijacking and nearly 3,000 counts of murder for their alleged roles planning and aiding the Sept. 11 attacks. A trial date has not been set.
In recent months, the defense teams have said emails have disappeared, large amounts of data have been lost and they say some of their private work has been subjected to monitoring. The problems were severe enough that the chief defense counsel for the military prohibited the use of email and the Defense Department network for privileged legal communications.
As a result, lawyers said they have been unable to adequately work on a case often portrayed as the most complex terrorism prosecution in U.S. history. Setting up a new system would take at least three months, at an undisclosed cost. Attorney David Nevin, an attorney for lead defendant Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said they cannot represent their clients and meet their ethical requirements without a secure network.
"My request is that we stop until we have a computer system that works and that functions and that you not force us to go forward with one hand tied behind our back," Nevin told the court.
Ronald Bechtold, the chief information officer for the office of the Secretary of Defense, testified that some of the security concerns can be resolved with "relatively, low cost, easy to implement solutions" such as encryption. He also expressed support for keeping defense documents on a segregated server network, though he did not endorse either of two specific proposals being considered by the chief defense counsel.
The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, did not issue an immediate ruling, but he appeared skeptical that he could order the government to set up computer servers that would be segregated from the rest of the Department of Defense. The court is scheduled to reconvene in October for another round of pretrial hearings.