How a Simple Phone Call Changed the Course of Justice at Gitmo

Military personnel are supposed to inspect each occupied cell at Guantanamo’s Camp 5 every two minutes. Brennan Linsley/AP

In August 2013, one of five men accused of helping carry out the September 2001 terrorist attacks met with his defense lawyers in the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Ramzi bin al Shibh, who military prosecutors say relayed money and messages to the 9/11 hijackers, asked his lawyers to send a message to his nephew in Yemen. After the meeting, the defense team's translator went to another part of the U.S. Navy base, called Yemen from a landline and had a five-minute phone conversation with Bin al Shibh's brother.

Defense lawyers say the translator conveyed an innocuous message from Bin al Shibh in which he urged his nephew to study hard in school. But two years on, that five-minute phone call, which has not been previously reported, continues to hinder the course of justice in the military commissions set up to prosecute people held at Guantanamo Bay as enemy combatants in the U.S. war on terror.

When they learned of the call in April 2014, U.S. officials feared that Bin al Shibh might have conveyed a coded message to al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. The Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a botched effort to turn a member of Bin al Shibh's defense team into a confidential informant. Outraged defense lawyers then waged legal war on the FBI and military prosecutors, halting the trial of all five 9/11 defendants. The trial has yet to resume.

Experts said the call and the legal trench warfare it sparked is the latest example of how President Barack Obama's effort to reform Guantanamo's military commissions – by appointing experienced death penalty defense lawyers and other legal changes – has failed. The changes, Obama said at the time, would restore legitimacy to the commissions and make them, alongside terrorism trials in civilian courts, sources of swift and sure justice.

Instead, the experts said, the reforms inadvertently spawned legal paralysis and court proceedings that sometimes veer into farce.

"By any measure, the commissions have been a failure," said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor. "They've obtained almost no convictions other than a handful of guilty pleas, and many of the convictions have been overturned on appeal."

Nine years after President George W. Bush created the commissions and six years after Obama reformed them, only eight defendants have been fully prosecuted. Three verdicts have been overturned. Most of the 36 detainees whom the Obama administration said it would prosecute have not been charged. Fourteen years after the crime, the trial of the 9/11 defendants remains years away.

The death penalty defense lawyers appointed as part of Obama's reforms have blanketed military judges with pre-trial motions that challenge nearly every aspect of the 9/11 trial. A former defense team member who asked not to be identified called the proceedings a "fiasco."

"It's been in pre-trial motions for three years," this person said. "You've got four years at least of motions waiting to be heard."

U.S. Army General Mark Martins, a Harvard Law School graduate who was named chief prosecutor of the military commissions in 2011, defended the pace of the trials. In an interview and in public speeches, he argued that the military commissions are fair, lawful and protect the American public.

"Detention that is secure, humane and legitimate has assisted in protecting innocent peoples against al Qaeda," he said in a speech in September.

But administration officials who have worked on Guantanamo for years privately concede that the commissions have ground to a halt.

"It's a struggle," said one official, who asked not to be identified. "If you look at the history and where we are today, obviously it's a challenge."


The call to Yemen immediately sparked division in the Bin al Shibh defense team, according to two people familiar with the matter. The rift reflected longstanding confusion and disagreement over security procedures at the trials. Some team members thought that relaying a message by phone to Yemen, an al Qaeda stronghold, was a breach of Guantanamo's security protocols.

"We don't know what type of code could have been in the [message]," said one of the people with knowledge of the matter. "We don't know if he could have revealed some important information through it."

Before the 2001 attacks, Bin al Shibh, a native of Yemen, shared an apartment in Hamburg, Germany, with hijacker Mohammad Atta and applied to receive flight training in the United States. After repeatedly being denied a U.S. visa, Bin al Shibh allegedly wired funds to plotters already inside the United States.

After he was captured in Pakistan in 2002, Bin al Shibh was held for four years at a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency detention center, or "black site," before being moved to Guantanamo Bay. In 2008, military prosecutors charged Bin al Shibh with hijacking, terrorism and mass murder for his alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.

In a May 2009 announcement, Obama said he would reform, rather than abolish, the military commissions. Obama argued that rule changes, including barring statements made under harsh interrogation and making it more difficult to use hearsay as evidence, would make the commissions more credible.

Republicans welcomed the move. Legal experts predicted it would fail.

Eric Freedman, a Hofstra University law professor, said the reforms didn't remove one of the military commissions' core legal problems: Many of the terrorist activities with which some detainees were charged were civilian crimes, not war crimes. Under international law, military tribunals can try defendants only for war crimes.

"Conspiracy to blow up an airliner is a criminal offense," not a war crime, Freedman said.

The 9/11 trial, in particular, has caused problems because each defendant faces the death penalty. David Nevin, chief defense lawyer for accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said death penalty defense lawyers would be negligent if they did not file repeated motions calling for the torture of their clients to be made public.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that one of the most basic rights of capital defendants is the ability to cite mitigating factors before they are sentenced to death, Nevin said. "If there has to be this much secrecy, if there has to be this many restrictions on a lawyer's ability to provide a defense," Nevin said, "then you just can't have a capital prosecution."

Members of the Bin al Shibh defense team feared that if the call was a security breach, even an inadvertent one, they could be prosecuted for violating post-9/11 national security laws. New York defense lawyer Lynne Stewart was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a federal jury convicted her in 2005 of passing messages from a radical Egyptian cleric to his followers.

Members of the defense team asked the team's chief lawyer, James Harrington, to report the call to Yemen to military officials, according to two people familiar with the matter. Harrington declined to do so because he did not believe that it violated security protocols.

In an interview, Harrington said the call was a routine personal statement from Bin al Shibh to his family. He also said that gaining the trust of Bin al Shibh and his family was his duty as a death penalty defense lawyer. "There was no effort to conceal anything that we did," Harrington told Reuters. "The phone call was made from Guantanamo. We weren't trying to hide anything."

Guantanamo detainees are allowed to communicate with their families by written letter, phone call and sometimes video conference arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to Anna Nelson, a spokesperson for the group. She said all of those communications are monitored by U.S. military officials.

A Defense Department spokesman said: "All detainees have the ability to communicate with their families." He declined to say whether lawyers can relay messages to their clients' families. "If defense lawyers are contacting their clients' families, they will be able to provide you those details," he said.

Defense lawyers have argued for years that Guantanamo security protocols are excessive, confusing, and frequently change. They vehemently oppose the ability of court security officers to unilaterally cut off audio feed from the courtroom to journalists if they fear a lawyer or defendant is going to disclose classified information.

And they have accused military officials of placing listening devices in rooms where they meet their clients. The government's obsession with secrecy, they contend, is driven by the CIA's desire to conceal from the public the extent to which it tortured detainees.

Defense lawyers and commission officials cannot even agree on what the security procedures are. Lawyers for some of the five 9/11 defense teams have declined to sign a memorandum of understanding that they will abide by security protocols.

"It's not clear what all the rules are," said Nevin. "The government refuses to give us classification guidance."

Government officials say the classification rules are clear. One of the Obama reforms, they point out, was to assign one full-time "security officer" to each defense team. Their sole job is to help defense team members determine which information is classified and which is not.


At the time of the Bin al Shibh translator's call to Yemen, the team had no security officer, according to the two people familiar with the matter. The team's security officer had moved to another position, and a replacement had not been found.

After Harrington declined to report the call, the FBI learned of it from an individual whose name has not been made public. Based on that information, agents decided that one member of Bin al Shibh's defense team may have committed "a federal crime and compromised national security," according to court papers filed by government lawyers.

In April 2014, FBI agents approached a member of Bin al Shibh's defense team on a Sunday after he returned home from church, according to court documents. The agents questioned him about the message, asked the team member not to discuss their visit and had him sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Several days later, the team member informed Harrington of the visit anyway, according to court filings. Harrington and other defense lawyers immediately filed an emergency motion to halt legal proceedings in the case.

In a combative court hearing at Guantanamo, Harrington called for an investigation of the FBI and accused the agency of trying to turn the member of Bin al Shibh's defense team into a confidential informant.

"To say this is a chilling experience for all of us is a gross understatement," Harrington told Col. James Pohl, the military judge who is overseeing the trial of the 9/11 defendants.

Pohl then ordered all U.S. government agencies to disclose any efforts to turn members of 9/11 defense teams into confidential informants.

When contacted by Reuters in September, Harrington initially said: "No letter from Mr. Bin al Shibh was ever sent to anybody in the Middle East." When asked if a message had been communicated by other means, Harrington said the translator had made a phone call.

"Mr. Bin al Shibh wanted a letter sent to his brother in Yemen which encouraged his brother's son, who was starting in a new school for him, to study hard," Harrington said in an email. "In a telephone call with the brother about the entire family, our interpreter told him that Ramzi wished his son well in his school." Harrington said he had instructed the translator to make the call.

The translator, who was a military contractor, was stripped of his security clearance in June 2014 and later fired, according to court documents. A military investigator said in a deposition that the translator admitted to her that he had committed a "security violation," but said it was "inadvertent" and "attributed it to stress."

The two people with knowledge of the matter said the translator, who has not been identified, did not appear to be an al Qaeda sympathizer. They said he seemed eager to carry out new tasks to secure his position on the defense team.

In February 2015, nearly a year after the FBI agents visited the house of the Bin al Shibh defense team member, Judge Pohl, the five defendants and their legal teams gathered in Guantanamo to resume pre-trial hearings. The hearing abruptly ended when several 9/11 defendants said the new translator assigned to Bin al Shibh's defense team, who was also a military contractor, had worked on a CIA black site where they were held captive.

Defense lawyers requested that all 130 military personnel and civilians working for the defense teams be investigated for secret ties to the U.S. government. Military prosecutors denied any wrongdoing and blamed defense lawyers for failing to investigate the background of the translator.

The military judge, Col. Pohl, canceled the pre-trial hearings and ordered that the Bin al Shibh team be given yet another translator.

As for what was actually said during the five-minute call to Yemen, a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the conversation appears to have been innocuous.

"It turned out to be much ado about nothing," he said.

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