Fight escalates over legal mail at Guantanamo

By BEN FOX | January 11, 2012 | 5:26 PM EST

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The chief defense counsel for the Guantanamo Bay war crimes tribunals said Wednesday that he has instructed attorneys not to follow a new rule subjecting legal mail to a security review, escalating a dispute with the prison's commander.

Marine Col. Jeffrey Colwell said he issued the instructions to the more than 100 military and civilian lawyers involved with the tribunal in response to the order issued last month by the prison commander, Rear Adm. David Woods.

The dispute comes as protests were held in Washington, London and inside the prison to mark the 10th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners.

Allowing someone to see legal mail violates attorney-client privilege and codes of professional conduct, Colwell said.

"It is impermissible for them to agree to the procedure that the government has set for the delivery and review of legal mail," he said.

The order by Woods requires that legal mail be reviewed by a team of Defense Department officials and law enforcement personnel to ensure that prisoners charged with war crimes do not receive contraband or written material that could pose a security threat.

A spokesman for the tribunals, Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, said the rule was structured in a way that balances the need for security with a prisoner's right to a fair trial, He said inspections would not include a review of the "substantive content" of the legal mail.

Colwell said the defense does not believe the rule adequately protects attorney-client privilege and a court will likely have to resolve the issue.

Defense lawyers have filed a legal challenge to the new rule and will also ask a military judge to overturn its at a hearing next week for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is charged in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the chief defense counsel's stance.

"Col. Colwell joins an honorable line of Guantanamo military lawyers who have opposed superiors' attempts, in the ostensible name of security, to undermine long-standing rules necessary for a fair trial," said Zachary Katznelson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project.

The new rule applies only to the approximately 30 prisoners at the U.S. base in Cuba who will be charged with war crimes. A total of 171 men are being detained at Guantanamo.