Defense Files Lost Because DoD Techies Failed “IT 101”

Another day of testimony in the 9/11 case at the Guantanamo Bay courtroom revealed a few new nuggets of information about the computer catastrophes at the Office of Military Commissions and how to fix them.

On Thursday, we learned that a “dirty shutdown” was one reason for at least one instance of “tanking” last winter of the computer drives used by military commissions defense counsel. The problem, testified Scott Parr, chief of the Office of Military Commissions IT services, was that files were being replicated at the same time the server was being shut down. Only “the servers helping the replication process did not shut down before the servers did.“ So they copied a bunch of blank or incomplete documents.

Unfortunately, many of those documents were not later retrievable because for four months, we learned, from late December 2012 through April of this year, no one bothered to back up the military commissions’ computer system. Starting in mid-December, a Pentagon engineering team had begun copying the military commissions computer drives so the lawyers could have faster access to their files while physically at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.  That process continued until the Spring. And although system backup is “IT101,” as Parr put it, no one at the Pentagon backed up any of those commission files until April.

“The engineering group was not typically the backup group,” explained Parr. But when replication was being done “it was in the engineering group’s area. So they didn’t do the backup.”

“As a standard procedure,” he assured the court, the Pentagon computer IT office “is pretty diligent about ensuring they backup information as they need to.”

Defense lawyers say they still haven’t had their files restored.

The government on Thursday called witnesses to attempt to make the case that defense lawyers don’t need a separate, secure computer system for their work, which is what they’ve requested. The government maintains instead that defense counsel can simply use encryption technology to protect privileged e-mails and documents on the Pentagon system. But testimony from the government’s encryption expert, Brent Driscoll Glover, a contractor in charge of “identity protection management” for the Pentagon’s Washington Headquarters Services, revealed that the keys for all the encryption technology used by the Defense Department are held at a “store.” That “store” is run by the National Security Agency and the Department of Defense, who can access anything encrypted with its system.

“You know that the NSA’s primary mission is conducting investigation and surveillance of alleged enemies of this country, do you not?” asked Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s attorney, David Nevin, who went on to remind him that he represents five of those alleged enemies in this case.

“No, I do not,” Glover responded, insisting he doesn’t know what the NSA does. “I’m only here to speak of fact, not conjecture.”

Glover did confirm, however, that the Defense Department’s constant monitoring of computer use is not blocked by encryption. Moreover, the headings of e-mails – the To, From and Subject lines – are not affected by encryption, either.

Meanwhile, none of this testimony went to many of the problems the defense teams still have – including that e-mails they send to one another, or even to the court, often disappear.

Cheryl Bormann underscored that point on Thursday when she handed an exhibit to the court security officer that she says she had emailed to the trial judiciary office earlier. She learned Thursday morning that it had not arrived.

Wendy Kelly, Chief of Operations at the Convening Authority of the military commissions, testified that she’s identified two possible technology solutions that she believes will address defense counsel’s concerns. The Chief Defense Counsel now needs to choose one, then someone has to authorize Kelly’s office to enter into a contract to get it done.

Defense counsel have asked the court to delay the proceedings in this case until that new technology has been put in place. The prosecution has objected.


Published on September 19, 2013


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