A Long Awaited Trip to Fort Meade
Over fall break I had the opportunity to travel to Fort Meade, Maryland to view the pretrial hearings of alleged terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM). KSM is alleged to be involved in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as well as other terrorist activities. Mohammed is currently being held in Guantánamo Bay, and while the hearings take place in Cuba, approved NGO observers can view the hearings via secure link from Fort Meade military base. I’ve been involved with the Military Commission Observation Project for almost a year now and this is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to view a hearing. This spring I was scheduled to attend the hearing of Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, who is alleged to be involved in attacks and terrorist plots in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however that hearing was postponed just before departure.
As an NGO observer it’s important to stay up to date on the hearing schedule because it changes frequently and sometimes with little notice. The KSM hearings were originally scheduled for Monday through Friday of Fall Break however we received word from Professor Edwards that the hearings most likely would not be held on Monday and the earliest start would be Tuesday. I arrived on Tuesday morning after an all-night drive from Indiana. After checking in at the Fort Meade visitor Center, I proceeded to the building on the military base where the hearings were streamed. I didn’t realize how large Fort Meade is. It has its own shopping mall with food court and hundreds of families live on the base, which is home to divisions of several government agencies.
Court is in Session
The court room was not at all what I expected. I was imagining a traditional looking court room and was playing off some stereotypes from the 1992 thriller “A Few Good Men”, however the court room was a simple room and full of books on rolling carts. Also I expected to see one camera angle for the duration of the hearings, however the court has several cameras for several camera angles and the feed switches camera angles depending on who is speaking in the courtroom. A few times during the hearing we had to pause because of problems with the translator’s equipment, which is apparently a reoccurring problem. This matter is further confounded by the fact that KSM speaks English and was educated in the United States. The main issue being discussed while I was at the hearing had to do with contents of KSM’s legal bin. Detainees have their own legal bin, which is a physical bin, and when they do any work in preparation for trial they are instructed to place this work in their legal bin so that it is not reviewed by unauthorized parties. Further any paper with writing or any material done in anticipation of trial is supposed to be stamped with a detainee specific stamp and number.
Topics for Consideration
Problematically KSM is not supplied with pre-stamped paper. His attorneys allege that material from his legal bin was reviewed during cell searches. The facts seem to support this claim and we heard testimony from several people with relevant knowledge of the incidents. It really seemed to come down to the fact that while the material was in the legal bin, it wasn’t stamped with the proper stamp and number. Those who gave testimony and who had relevant knowledge of the matter claim that when the cell was searched and the materials in question were discovered, a translator was summoned and that the translator recognized that the writing, which was in Arabic, was done in anticipation of legal proceedings. While, practically, a translator might be qualified to make this determination, procedurally, this is inappropriate because the translator shouldn’t be functioning in a legal capacity. Further, if the writing was done in anticipation of legal proceedings then the contents of that material should be limited to only KSM and his attorneys. These incidents threaten KSM’s attorney-client privilege, because unauthorized parties are reviewing legal material. However, one can also see why it might be problematic to provide KSM with pre-stamped paper to be used for legal purposes without knowing what he’s going to write on it and that it actually will be used for legal purposes.
The court went on to consider other motions and the subject of classified material became a forefront issue. Specifically, there were a lot of pages of classified material that the defendant’s attorney would like to have further access to. During the hearings in Fort Meade the live stream sometimes shows a document rather than a camera angle. During the hearing I attended, several documents were presented with sections of the documents blocked out, not visible, because the materials were considered classified. One of the problems that the court struggled with is what to do with this situation. The judge at one point, in an aside, plundered aloud whether he should be the one to review the documents which he himself claimed not to have access to. It was also briefly considered that it might be appropriate for KSM’s attorneys to have access to some of the classified material, while withholding it from the detainee himself. Of course this also presents challenges because KSM’s attorneys might be acting on information that KSM is not privy to himself.
A Word to Future Observers
As is often the case in legal proceedings, the Military Commission Observation Project pretrial hearings are often plagued with cancellation, delays, and other incidents that can affect the hearing schedules. In fact, when I went to Fort Meade over fall break there was concern that Hurricane Matthew could delay the hearing, but nonessential evacuated personnel were returned to Guantánamo Bay before that hearing was set to take place and the hearings preceded on Tuesday, one day later than previously scheduled. And the Abdul Hadi al Iraqi pretrial hearings in January were postponed as a result of a motion for continuance.
I drove out to Fort Meade and next time I’ll consider flying, but if I do fly I’ll be sure to purchase travel insurance in case something unexpected happens with the hearing that I’m scheduled to attend. Getting onto base at Fort Meade is easier than I expected. I submitted the proper paperwork to Professor Edwards prior to departure and didn’t have any problems when I got to the Fort Meade Visitor Center. However, after you’ve been cleared by the Visitor Center, make sure you attempt to enter the base through gate that is convenient to get to the viewing building and see the hearing. I learned the hard way that if you put the building location in your GPS, your turn by turn navigation might lead you into Fort Meade installation by a gate other than the one that is the most convenient for you. In the end I was fine however I entered Fort Mead military installation through an NSA drop off entrance. While I was allowed entrance to Fort Meade through the NSA entrance I was subject to additional security screening. This happened on the second day when I attempted to return for the hearings. On the first day I followed Prof. Edwards instructions, went in through the most convenient gate, and didn’t have any problems.