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Guantanamo guards switch search technique to bring alleged 9/11 plotter to court

The war court headquarters at Camp Justice, as seen through a broken window at an obsolete air hangar at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on February 28, 2015, in an image approved for release by the U.S. military. (Carol Rosenberg/Miami Herald/TNS)

Four of the five alleged 9/11 plotters voluntarily stayed away from Wednesday’s pretrial session, two because of a new “groin search” policy, therefore missing out on a prison lawyer’s explanation that guards were physically searching the captives thighs to ankles and avoiding their genitals.

An Army major working as the staff attorney at the secret Camp 7 prison testified anonymously that after Monday’s upset over guards using their hands instead of a scanner to search the alleged terrorists from their ankles to inner thighs, the prison reversed the process.

Guards Wednesday started in the inner thigh of the lone captive who chose to come to court, Walid bin Attash, and felt around downward to his ankles. Bin Attash blurted out in court that “the search happened with me differently than Monday.” But he did not elaborate.

The prison spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Anne Leanos, was unable to respond to a question submitted Monday morning on whether there was an equipment breakdown, metal scanner shortage or directive from elsewhere to cause guards to institute “groin searches” at the clandestine Camp 7.

This week’s was the first known time that Camp 7 guards used their hands to search either the captives’ inner thighs or genitals, depending on who described the technique. Defense lawyers had previously lost a federal court bid to stop guards from conducting groin searches in Guantanamo’s other, less secretive prison.

The trial judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, invited the defense attorneys to fast-track litigation on whether the judge can interfere in prison security protocols — something he has repeatedly declined to do. But the attorney for alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, David Nevin, said lawyers need time to look into the new practice, and might seek to litigate it in full during a March pretrial hearing.

Nevin also said the defense may need to do an in-court demonstration of “where the men are touched” as part of their challenge to prison policy.

He cast the new searches as part of a Camp 7 practice of constantly changing rules, which he called particularly disruptive to former CIA captives because during their years in the Black Sites changing rules were “at the heart of the torture program.”

Mohammed was among those who waived attendance at the hearing, which also included a defense bid to get back government laptops issued to each of the captives for trial preparation. Prosecutor Ed Ryan went before the judge to argue a motion on allowing a forensic examination of the devices. Instead, he told Pohl the accused plotters of the worst terror attack in U.S. history should never get them back.

The equipment is not networked. But guards discovered that Mohammed’s nephew, Ammar al Baluchi, had “altered” his by taking a part out. Guards also found Baluchi had written directions in Arabic to his uncle and fellow accused plotter Walid bin Attash explaining how to undertake the alteration.

The prosecutor did not explain the purpose of the change, but noted that before his capture Baluchi was a Microsoft certified software engineer.

Nevin argued that the devices contain crucial case preparation material, and it is the only way Mohammed can prepare for such a complex case, using it to review evidence, pleadings and map out defense strategy. He noted that there was no evidence Mohammed had done anything to his computer.

Pohl repeatedly asked the prosecutor to explain the risk of what Baluchi had done.

For one, Ryan said, he violated a court order not to tinker with the technology. Then he described Guantanamo base’s recent acquisition of T-Mobile cellular telephone service and an expansion of Wi-Fi signals without specifically suggesting the government’s non-networked laptops could somehow be made to communicate either from the snoop-proof maximum security courthouse or the classified Camp 7 prison where CIA captives are held.

Later in the day Baluchi’s attorney, Jay Connell, said the Toughbook computers the government issued the captives to prepare for trial had no WiFi or Bluetooth cards in them, making connectivity an impossibility. He also said the prison warden had put Baluchi in disciplinary status for a week for doing something to his laptop.

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© 2018 Miami Herald

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