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."
The CIA security concerns triggered a dispute last week with Justice Department lawyers sympathetic to the John Adams Project.
A senior Justice Department official has recused himself from the investigation as a result of the dispute, and Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago who prosecuted a case involving the unauthorized disclosure of a CIA officer's identity, was brought into the probe after the recent discovery of CIA officers' photos at the Cuban prison.
One official opposed to giving the detainees the laptops said it was a mistake because the legal precedent opens the way for lawyers to appeal in court for the detainees to be granted Internet access - a concern shared by outside analysts.
"It is a slippery slope," said Tom Joscelyn, a specialist on detainees with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "It is basically moving the ball inch by inch. This is one more thing that we are giving to them, and there is really no good reason that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed deserves a laptop."
Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, was asked about security at the prison, which is in his area of operations, during a Capitol Hill hearing on Thursday.
"If a counselor wants to visit a detainee in Guantanamo, there is a very specific location where they meet," Gen. Fraser told the House Armed Services Committee under questioning from Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, California Republican and the panel's ranking member.
"They're able to meet there. We monitor it visually, either with someone watching or someone watching on a videotape, but no audio associated with that, and that's primarily for security that we continue to watch visually," he said.
Any messages left by lawyers for detainees are reviewed by a legal team, he said, though the general added that attorney-client privilege prevents the review of other communications. "No one at [Joint Task Force] Guantanamo monitors any of the conversations between counsel and the detainees," he said.
Asked whether attorneys for detainees provided them with information on military operations, intelligence, arrests, political news and the names of U.S. government personnel, Gen. Fraser said he was aware of a "couple of instances" when information was passed to lawyers on plans for moving detainees.
Other security concerns at the prison are sent to the Pentagon, and "we, in turn, turn that over to the Department of Justice," Gen. Fraser said.
In a related development on Thursday, Mr. McKeon wrote to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to ask whether detainee operations in Cuba were "compromised" by the John Adams Program.
In the March 18 letter obtained by The Washington Times, Mr. McKeon renewed his concerns that "the department's detainee operations have been - and may continue to be - compromised" by the John Adams Project.
"Of greater concern is that the John Adams Project may have put military and U.S. government personnel at risk," Mr. McKeon stated.
He asked for an immediate response to a request made in September for a committee briefing on the project and called "unacceptable" the Pentagon's failure to respond to a request made in January.
In the Senate, Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican and vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also expressed concerns about Guantanamo detainees learning the identities of covert CIA interrogators.
"Reports that ACLU attorneys showed photos of CIA operatives to terrorists make it pretty clear whose side the ACLU is really on," Mr. Bond said in a statement. "It's not enough that our terror-fighters have to fight al Qaeda; now they have to watch out for the ACLU. This is one battle where it's critical the administration have the CIA's back, not the ACLU's."
Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy, said the laptops for detainees "seems to be yet another in a series of ill-advised and ultimately potentially dangerous concessions to the terrorists."
"At the very least it is reinforcing their impression that the U.S. government is engaged in submission to them and their agenda," he said.