Over the past few years, after Obama failed to close Guantanamo, there's been a push to present the military commissions process there as reformed -- nothing like the extra-legal prosecution efforts of the Bush era, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the effort unconstitutional because Congress had not set it up. So the Obama administration and Congress came up with an improved regime, one more in keeping with what Americans would recognize as a court.
Today, we learned another way in which military commissions are different from any court the United States has seen before: Turns out the CIA has the ability to cut off the public's view of the proceedings without consulting with the judge, or anyone else.
That's apparently what happened Monday, to the shock of the judge, who apparently was unaware that anyone other than the court's security officer had the authority to censor courtroom exchanges. You can read The Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg's account on what took place here.
Today, we learn who that someone is: the OCA or the Original Classification Authority -- in this case, the CIA. (You can see Rosenberg's account of today's commission testimony at her Twitter account here.)
Certainly, the Obama administration and Congress never publicly explained that this was how the commissions would work when they mandated in the Military Commission Act that the proceedings must be held in public. Obviously, it had not been explained to Judge Pohl or the defense attorneys, though the prosecution seemed to know.
What to do now? Rosenberg, after consulting with counsel, challenged the refusal to explain who had the authority to cut off the public's access to the courtroom. Here's what she filed with the commissions clerk:
To the Clerk of Military Commissions:
I am writing to you pursuant to Regulation 19-3 governing public access to commission proceedings, to object to the closure yesterday, January 28, 2013, of proceedings in United States v. Mohammad, et al.
Public access was denied to a portion of the proceedings by the termination of the video and audio feed, and this closure of the courtroom was imposed without any findings by the military judge authorizing it, as required by M.C.A. 949d(c) and R.M.C. 806. As a reporter covering these proceedings, I object to this unauthorized denial of access and request a public explanation of the basis for the closure, a statement of the legal authority for the denial of public access, and an identification of the individual or organization that
closed the proceedings to the public.
I hereby request that you forward this objection to all counsel of record in the proceeding.
Will it make a difference? That remains to be seen. The Obama administration likes to say it's made the military commissions process transparent. But hiding the fact that all proceedings are overseen by an unnamed entity that can move outside the authority of the judge to censor the public's view of what's taking place is hardly transparent. It's difficult even to imagine that any entity has that authority in what passes for a quasi-judicial proceeding, where the judge runs the courtroom.