Defense lawyers asked the judge in the Guantanamo war crimes tribunal on Friday to halt pretrial hearings in the 9/11 case until technicians fix a slew of computer and email problems that they said had made it nearly impossible to do their work.
"We're basically put back in the 19th century," said Army Major Jason Wright, who represents the alleged mastermind of the hijack plane attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed. "It takes about five to 10 times what it would normally take to do defense functions."
Pentagon technical advisers have said it would take up to 111 days to fix the problems once a contract was signed and money allocated, and that it was unlikely the work could be finished before the start of 2014.
The judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, said he would consider the matter further at a pretrial hearing scheduled to start on Sept. 16 and decide then whether to cancel hearings set for October, November, December and January.
"I understand the serious nature of being able to communicate as a defense counsel," the judge said.
Defense lawyers said emails they sent were not received, investigative files that took years to compile had vanished and outside monitors were able to access their internet searches. Prosecutors and defense lawyers had temporarily been given access to each other's files, they said.
Some of the problems were disclosed earlier in the year. By April they had grown so severe that the chief defense counsel, Air Force Colonel Karen Mayberry, ordered defense lawyers to stop using their Pentagon computers for any confidential casework.
That means that to share draft documents with legal team members in other cities, they load them onto external drives, go to Starbucks and file them via Wi-Fi using their personal computers and personal email accounts, Wright said.
He said the chief of staff for the Pentagon official overseeing the tribunals issued her diagnosis in a conference call on Thursday, declaring: "This is a hot mess."
Clay Trivett, one of the prosecutors, questioned the severity of the problems, noting that the defense lawyers had produced PowerPoint presentations and extensive briefs for 29 legal motions argued at a week-long hearing that ended on Friday.
The problems stem from two main sources, the lawyers said.
Some began when technicians tried to create a mirrored system so work they did in Washington and work they did at the remote Guantanamo naval base were synchronized in both systems. Other issues began with a switch in email servers.
Defense attorney James Harrington, who represents Yemeni prisoner Ramzi bin al Shibh, said he had essentially been reduced to drafting motions with pen and paper.
Another of Mohammed's lawyers, David Nevin, called the problems especially worrisome in a death penalty case that prosecutors have routinely described as the most complex in U.S. history.
"In this day and age you cannot practice law this way," Nevin said.
The five defendants are accused of training and funding the hijackers who rammed four commercial jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania in 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people. They face charges that include conspiring with al Qaeda, terrorism and murder.
All five skipped court on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
Nine people whose relatives died in the attacks traveled to the base to watch the hearings. They said they had already waited 12 years for a verdict but would be patient if the computer problems caused more delays.
"We want something that stands on appeal," said Stephan Gerhardt, a Canadian citizen whose brother, Ralph, was a Cantor Fitzgerald vice president killed in the World Trade Center. "If it's going to take longer than we'd like it to take, that's fine. We're going to be here 'til the end."