More evidence is being uncovered indicating that if the government wants access to privileged attorney-client communications, it will find a way to do so. This new incident, tied to the 9/11 trials, follows the news that the NSA gave Australian intelligence the go-ahead to intercept communications between an American lawyer and his Indonesian clients.
This previous incident resulted in the American Bar Association sending a letter to the NSA asking it to uphold the sanctity of attorney-clients communications. Gen. Alexander's response was basically "of course we respect that, but we grab so much stuff there's no way for us to guarantee we'll never intercept privileged communications." Not much in the way of reassurance there, and this following story shows there's even less reason to believe that investigative and national security agencies won't insert themselves into the attorney-client relationship.
Two weeks ago, a pair of F.B.I. agents appeared unannounced at the door of a member of the defense team for one of the men accused of plotting the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a contractor working with the defense team at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the man was bound by the same confidentiality rules as a lawyer. But the agents wanted to talk.
They asked questions, lawyers say, about the legal teams for Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other accused terrorists who will eventually stand trial before a military tribunal at Guantánamo. Before they left, the agents asked the contractor to sign an agreement promising not to tell anyone about the conversation.
With that signature, Mr. bin al-Shibh’s lawyers say, the government turned a member of their team into an F.B.I. informant.
There's not much more available detail-wise, as the defense's motion informing the court of this subversion is -- like most of the documents related to this trial -- under seal. But everything leading up to this new revelation indicates the government views this trial to be a forum where the normal rules just don't apply.
To begin with, this was never meant to be much more than a show trial. The special tribunal system was set up by President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, specifically for suspected terrorists. (Despite the stacked deck -- foreign terrorism suspects aren't afforded the same legal protections as US citizens -- the court has yet to secure a conviction in its 12+ years of existence.) This special system has resulted in several instances of access to attorney-client communications, some intentional and others (supposedly) more inadvertent.
Last year, the government acknowledged that microphones were hidden inside what looked like smoke detectors in the rooms where detainees met with their lawyers. Those microphones gave officials the ability to eavesdrop on confidential conversations, but the military said it never did so…
A botched computer update gave prosecutors and defense lawyers access to the other side’s confidential work. And the Pentagon acknowledged inadvertently searching and copying defense lawyers’ emails but said nobody read them.
And it's not just the defense that's bothered by these incidents.
Christopher Jenks, a Southern Methodist University law professor and a former military prosecutor, said he sympathized with the Guantánamo prosecutors, who appeared to have been just as surprised as defense lawyers by the appearance of the F.B.I. and C.I.A. in their cases.
But even more troubling is the fact that an agency supposedly uninvolved in the proceedings has gone so far as to subvert the judicial process altogether.
Last year, as a lawyer for Mr. Mohammed was speaking during another hearing, a red light began flashing. Then the videofeed from the courtroom abruptly cut out. The emergency censorship system had been activated. But why? And by whom? The defense lawyer had said nothing classified. And the court officer responsible for protecting state secrets had not triggered the system. Days later, the military judge, Col. James L. Pohl, announced that he had been told that an “original classification authority” — meaning the C.I.A. — was secretly monitoring the proceedings. Unknown to everyone else, the agency had its own button, which the judge swiftly and angrily disconnected.
After witnessing the amount of effort the CIA has made in order to thwart the release
of the torture report, it's of no surprise that it tried to control the narrative here as well. It's also no surprise the agency feels it should defer to no one, not even a presidentially-directed tribunal.
The government does have a little more leeway, considering these aren't your normal, subject-to-due-process trials, but it's still problematic that despite the advantages of a quasi-tribunal set up by a presidential order in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, government investigative agencies still feel compelled to not only insert themselves into the process, but to subvert client-attorney privilege on top of it. All's fair in the War on Terror, it would appear, even when those suspects are safely locked up and going into their second decade of detention as the broken process labors on.