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Starbucks vs. Pentagon: Guantanamo court debates whose network is more secure

The exterior of Camp Delta is seen at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, March 6, 2013. REUTERS/Bob Strong
The exterior of Camp Delta is seen at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, March 6, 2013. REUTERS/Bob Strong

By Jane Sutton

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - Using the Wi-Fi connection at Starbucks was a better bet than risking putting confidential defense documents on a glitch-prone Pentagon computer network, a senior Defense Department official testified on Thursday at the Guantanamo trial of five prisoners charged with plotting the September 11 hijacked plane attacks.

The Internet link at the local Starbucks was "the best bad option that we had," Air Force Colonel Karen Mayberry, the chief defense counsel for the war crimes tribunal, told the judge.

Defense lawyers have asked the judge to halt pretrial hearings in the death penalty case of the alleged plotters at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba until the computer system can be fixed to ensure that outsiders cannot access confidential defense documents.

Mayberry ordered her team of lawyers to stop putting sensitive documents on that system in April, citing their ethical obligation to protect confidentiality.

The lawyers have since been using personal computers to email documents from coffee shops and hotel lobbies. Mayberry said it was possible these networks were not secure, but she was certain that the Pentagon network had been compromised.

Mayberry cited evidence that defense files had been lost or altered, prosecutors and defense lawyers were temporarily given access to some of each other's emails, and outside monitors tracked defense researchers' work as they visited terrorism-related sites to prepare for the case.

"It's not speculative or hypothetical. It happened," Mayberry said.

The network security debate has dominated the week-long hearing for the suspects, who could be executed if convicted of conspiring with al Qaeda, hijacking and murdering 2,976 people in the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Prosecutor Ed Ryan has scoffed at the notion that using Starbucks Wi-Fi was safer than using the Pentagon network.

"You're not concerned about the nice man in the green apron looking over the major's shoulder as he's typing these emails?" Ryan had asked Mayberry on Wednesday.

EXCUSE FOR DELAYS

Mayberry said that when she issued her April order she recognized that "it could shut us down," but that she thought the problems would be fixed quickly.

An April hearing in the case was canceled, and prosecutors have suggested the defense is using the network problems as an excuse for further delays. A logistics overseer testified that fixing the system could take up to 111 days once the Pentagon awards the contract and approves funding.

"Funding may be another issue that could come up in about 13 days or thereabouts," said the judge, Army Colonel James Pohl.

In addition, the White House budget office has warned U.S. agencies to prepare for a possible shutdown of the federal government unless Congress overcomes mounting partisan discord and reaches an agreement to fund the next fiscal year that begins October 1.

Some of the Internet problems were blamed on a switch in email systems. Others were blamed on an attempt to replicate lawyers' work on two separate networks, one in the Washington area and one at the remote Guantanamo base.

Internet technology supervisor Paul Scott Parr tried to explain in laymen's terms what went wrong. A "dirty shutdown" occurred when the server shut down while the replication program was still running, he said.

Backups that were supposed to occur daily had not been done for more than three months, Parr said. Seven gigabytes of data previously described as "lost" had merely been "misplaced" and had mostly been restored, he said.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Philip Barbara)

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