Microsoft Blamed for Errors That Caused 9/11 Court Server Snafus
FT. MEADE, Md. (CN) - An elementary error by Microsoft caused the computer problems that might further delay the trials of five accused Sept. 11, 2001, plotters, the chief techie at the Office of Military Commissions testified Thursday at the Guantanamo war court.
Attorneys for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the self-professed mastermind of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and four of his alleged cohorts have asked to pause proceedings until their confidential communications can be secured. Lawyers for the terror suspects said they began to notice odd things happening on their computers in December that still have not been resolved.
They said hundreds of thousands of emails vanished, recording devices turned up in an interview room with clients, work-product files appeared modified and two attorneys received phone calls from agents questioning them about websites they had been visiting to research their cases.
Air Force Col. Karen Mayberry, the chief defense counsel, testified on Wednesday that these incidents made her take the drastic step of ordering all defense attorneys in the military commissions office to protect their communications by foregoing Pentagon servers, this past April.
A potential stay of proceedings to resolve the issues could take several months, which could push back the prosecution's goal for a trial next year.
The Pentagon says no delay is needed because all users of Department of Defense computers -- not only those of lawyers for Mohammed et al. -- are subject to monitoring by computer algorithms that flag visits to suspicious URLs to protect the networks from hacking, malicious codes or other threats.
The email issues stemmed from an initiative to speed up both parties' connections at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, the military said.
On Thursday, Scott Parr, the information technology chief at the Office of Military Commissions (OMC), testified that Microsoft was contracted to "migrate" files that attorneys stored in their offices across the United States to the U.S. Naval Base on Cuban soil. He added that the process went wrong after the software company made the "IT 101" errors of conducting a "dirty shutdown" during a transfer and failing to back up files for about four months.
Col. James Pohl, the military judge, asked Parr whether it caused him "pause" that a contractor "we were paying a lot of money to" made such errors.
"It was IT 101, and apparently, they missed that class?" Pohl asked.
Chuckling, Parr replied, "Yes, sir, it caused me pause."
It did not, however, make him to lose confidence in the initiative.
"The system now is working as imagined prior to implementation," he said.
Parr insisted that all defense team files have been recovered, but defense attorneys claim he could not make such a determination because he lacks privilege to see their files. They submitted into evidence a list of purportedly unaccounted for files.
Earlier in the day, chief defense counsel Mayberry testified that the current system poses security issues for both parties. She said a former prosecutor's confidential emails mysteriously appeared on an open-share drive accessed by a Navy captain.
Once the captain alerted her of their presence on the drive, Mayberry said that she barred anyone from looking at the files and reported the incident to the prosecution team.
Prosecutor Ed Ryan previously intimated that Mayberry executed her order to delay the trial. He pointed to her email at the time acknowledging that Judge Pohl would not like such a move, which she believed would have the potential to shut down the trial.
Mayberry rejected the prosecutor's implication during her second day of testimony.
If anything, the possible repercussions made her hesitate before executing the order, she said.
She added that she serves as the chief defense counsel supervising all attorneys representing those facing military commissions. The position has no civilian court analogue and does not involve participating in any particular case.
Prosecutor Ryan also argued that military servers were good enough for the high-profile cases of WikiLeaks source, Pvt. Chelsea Manning, and Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hassan.
Mayberry revealed today that one of Manning's military defenders reported to her office to possibly assist the Sept. 11 defense attorneys as well. This attorney never reported any similar computer incidents in that case, the colonel testified. She said the WikiLeaks case was not comparable to these military commissions, which she called "the most complex case ever tried in a U.S. jurisdiction."
Defense attorney Cheryl Bormann noted that U.S. federal courts field many complicated terrorism cases. Defendants are typically are assigned lawyers from the Federal Defenders system, which operates independently on a closed system.
Mayberry said that such a system would have prevented the experiences of both parties.
The U.S. naval base at Guantanamo's only connection to the outside world goes through a satellite monitored by the Defense Intelligence Satellite Agency. Possible alternatives discussed in court include transmitting privileged communications via fiber optic cable or a separate satellite.
The military commission's convening authority in Virginia also investigated two "courses of action" to fix the problem, the court heard.
Wendy Kelly, its chief of operations, said they would take 65 to 111 days, after a contract would be awarded and funded.
Prosecutors kicked off their case by calling Brent Glover, a contractor specializing in identity protection. He unleashed a blizzard of acronyms, from PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) to PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) to SSL (Secure Socket Layer) to an alphabet soup of government agencies in his highly technical description of the measures any attorney can use to encrypt communications on their GFEs (Government Furnished Equipment).
Most of these involve the use of a "public key" and recommendations on passcode maintenance. He quipped that those who forget their passcodes would be "SOL," referring to military slang for "Shit Out of Luck."
Mohammad's attorney David Nevin coyly offered, "That's 'Secure Optical Layer'?"
"Not quite, sir," Glover replied.
Under cross-examination, Glover confirmed that two government agencies store all of the public keys: the NSA (National Security Agency) and the DOD (Department of Defense).
"You know that the NSA's primary mission is conducting investigation and surveillance of those alleged to be enemies of our country?" Nevin asked.
Glover replied that he could not speak to the agency's mission.
Proceedings ended that day with Ronald Bechtold, the chief information officer for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He elaborated about the automated monitoring that prompted complaints from defense attorneys. They come from the NSA's U.S. Cyber Command in Ft. Meade, where a closed-circuit feed of hearings is being transmitted for reporters.
He estimated that the office detects one incident every day, from a spillage of classified information or a threat to the system.