New Yorker Reporter Sues Gitmo Over Audio Censorship at Military Trials

New Yorker Reporter Sues Gitmo Over Audio Censorship at Military Trials
Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisha Dawkins via Wikimedia CC

In 2012, New Yorker reporter Mattathias Schwartz covered the tribunal of suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on two occasions at Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Schwartz was allowed to sit in a separate room behind three panes of soundproof glass and watch the tribunal in real time, but a 40-second delayed audio feed inside the room ensured that no classified information was inadvertently leaked. 

But Schwartz noticed a problem. What Schwartz saw from behind the glass didn't jibe with what he heard over the audio. That's why the reporter is now suing the Department of Defense and several other agencies to get some answers. 

The lawsuit is the latest attempt to chip away at the deep secrecy that shrouds the detention camp, which was established 14 years ago to house suspected terrorists and which President Barack Obama has been fruitlessly trying to close for the past seven years. 

The way Schwartz describes it, as he sat in the room watching the proceedings, a red light would begin flashing as a warning that the feed would be cut when sensitive information approached. The feed would then resume after the classified info was uttered.

When the two didn't seem to match up, Schwartz requested records from the government on the hearings. He's still received nothing, which is why he filed suit in New York federal court this past December 11.

"The sound that you hear doesn't match what you see in front of you," Schwartz tells New Times. "It's really hard to follow when there's a lag."

Schwartz's lawsuit seeks to force the military to release records under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Specifically, Schwartz wants to know exactly what kind of information is being censored and who's cutting the audio feed. He's also asked for details about the security assigned to the commissions. 

Originally, a judge had the authority to cut the audio feed by ordering a security officer to push a button inside the courtroom, Schwartz's attorneys write in the suit. That changed January 28, 2013, when the feed was cut without any apparent action by the judge or the security officer. The judge made it clear that no one outside the courtroom had the authority to cut the feed, the lawsuit argues — so who was censoring the feed? 

The lawsuit hits at a deeper problem with the military commission, Schwartz says. Officials at Gitmo don't give any criteria about why certain information is censored, how the decision is reached, or who's censoring it. Normally, redacted documents in a FOIA request at least indicate who signed off on the censorship and provides a list of exemptions under the law. 

"In the military commissions, they don't have to say," Schwartz says, "and we don't even know who they are." 

With the amount of censorship that's been going on, he doesn't believe it's accurate to call the tribunals "public." 

Schwartz's lawsuit was filed by the students at the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School. The lawsuit's defendants include the U.S. Navy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency, which all received FOIA requests from Schwartz. 

The DOD declined to comment on the suit. "This is a matter in litigation and it would be inappropriate to comment further," says Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, a Department of Defense spokesman.


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