Spying accusation halts 9/11 pretrial hearing

The first 9/11 hearing of 2014 came to a sudden halt Monday following defense accusations that the FBI attempted to turn at least one of its team members into an informant.

According to the Miami Herald, defense attorney James Harrington told the judge, Col. James Pohl, that an FBI special agent approached a security officer for Ramzi bin al Shibh’s legal team on April 6 and attempted to glean information about the other members of the defense. The agent reportedly asked him to sign a nondisclosure agreement. 

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If true, the defense’s claim could mean the FBI created a conflict of interest within the defense team, undermined attorney-client confidentiality and compromised the case. According to defense attorneys, the breach warrants an independent inquiry, with a full investigation into whether any other members of the defense were approached by the FBI. It also necessitates providing the five accused men with additional counsel not potentially tainted by the FBI’s actions, they said.

If Pohl grants the defense request, it would likely delay court proceedings for many months, because officers of the court may only meet with the defendants if they have top-secret security clearances specifically pertaining to the case. Such clearances usually take months to obtain.

The hearings, held at the Guantánamo Bay naval base that also houses a U.S. military prison, are being conducted under tight security to avoid leaks regarding the secret CIA prisons where the defendants were held for several years after their capture.

The accusation derailed a planned hearing that sought to determine whether accused 9/11 plotter Ramzi bin al Shibh is mentally fit to stand trial. Pohl ended the hearing less than 30 minutes after it began in order to meet with government representatives in a closed session. Prosecutors claimed to be unaware of the FBI’s alleged actions.

Pohl has scheduled proceedings to resume Tuesday, but it is currently unclear whether the court will return to the question of Shibh’s competency or shift to the question of possible spying.

Monday’s incident was only the most recent allegation of defense monitoring by the U.S. government. In 2013, it was revealed that FBI agents had used hidden audio recorders to listen in on meetings between defense attorneys and their clients.

The hearings at Guantánamo are leading up to planned trial for the five men, including alleged ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who face the death penalty on charges of masterminding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.