The Pentagon allowed five captured al Qaeda members currently held at the Guantanamo Bay prison to use laptop computers in detention, raising concerns among security officials that the terrorism suspects could pass sensitive data to terrorists in the future, according to U.S. officials.
The computers, without Internet access, were provided to Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other suspected 9/11 conspirators at the prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba after approval by senior Pentagon officials in September 2008.
The battery-powered laptops were kept in the detainees’ cell areas, and limitations on their use were imposed, defense officials said. The practice continued until January, when charges against the five were temporarily dropped after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced the men would be tried in civilian court, not by military commission.
Mr. Holder then backed off plans to hold trials in federal court in New York City and said this week that a decision on where to conduct the trials is expected in the coming weeks.
In addition to Mohammed, the other al Qaeda members who were given computers were Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al-Hawsawi.
The computer access was granted by Guantanamo authorities before an Oct. 6, 2008, ruling by Marine Corps Col. Ralph H. Kohlmann, a military judge, that formally granted the five terrorism suspect the right to use computers, said Col. Les Melnyk, a Pentagon spokesman.
Col. Melnyk said that prior to the ruling “the government’s prosecution team agreed to provide a number of the materials requested by the defense - including computers - in advance of the ruling, having already determined that this was the fairest, safest and most secure way for ‘pro se accused’ to mount an appropriate defense.” The term “pro se” describes defendants who represent themselves in legal proceedings without lawyers.
The five al Qaeda members were “provided access to stand-alone computers without Internet access in order to review discovery material provided by the government, conduct legal research and prepare for their defense” against charges related to the Sept, 11 attacks, Col. Melnyk said.
The laptops, the ruling stated, include word-processing software and legal documents related to military law. The ruling bars Internet access, PowerPoint software, a DVD writer, and printers or scanners.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the laptops were confiscated and sealed until further action in the cases.
The detainees’ access to laptops and their interaction with lawyers is one element of an ongoing CIA and Justice Department investigation into whether lawyers representing the detainees compromised the safety of covert CIA interrogators. Lawyers showed the prisoners privately obtained photographs of CIA interrogators in an attempt to have the terrorism suspects identify the interrogators in order to call them as witnesses in future trials.
The agent-identification effort is part of a joint program of the American Civil Liberties Union and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers called the John Adams Project.
CIA counterintelligence officials have expressed serious concerns that intelligence on the interrogators’ identities may have leaked or will be passed out of Guantanamo through the lawyers. The agency also is opposing efforts by the Justice Department to support the John Adams Project in granting foreign terrorists the same constitutional rights granted to criminal defendants.
Former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said the legal effort to identify CIA personnel is troubling.
“This is a big deal,” he said.”You cant be stalking CIA officers in Northern Virginia, taking pictures of them, and then showing the pictures to the detainees at Guantanamo. Besides the actual event, I am outraged that it was a one-day story, and no one has followed it up. These men and women had their picture taken getting into their car after kissing their spouses and going to work. Its unbelievable.”View Entire Story
Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.
He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.
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