By Jane Sutton
GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - U.S. security restrictions governing the statements of former CIA captives held at Guantanamo are so stringent that one prisoner's assessment of basketball star LeBron James was treated as a top national secret for two months, a military defense lawyer said on Tuesday.
The incident was disclosed by Navy Lieutenant Commander Kevin Bogucki, a defense lawyer for Yemeni defendant Ramzi Binalshibh, one of five prisoners charged with orchestrating the September 11 plot to crash hijacked commercial planes into U.S. buildings.
Bogucki said another of his Guantanamo prisoner clients, former CIA captive Muhammed Rahim, wrote a note criticizing the National Basketball Association star's decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010.
"LeBron James is a very bad man. He should apologize to the city of Cleveland," Bogucki quoted the note as saying.
Rahim has not been charged with a crime but because he was previously held and interrogated by the CIA, his communications are subject to restrictions similar to those of the alleged September 11 plotters - every word they write or utter is presumed to be "Top Secret" unless a government Security Classification Review Team declares them safe for public release.
"It took that classification authority approximately two months to determine that my client's opinion of LeBron James did not pose a grievous threat to national security," said Bogucki, who did not indicate when the note was written.
Defense lawyers say the security restrictions are overbroad and impair their ability to prepare a defense in a case that could end with their clients' execution.
The defendants, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the hijacked plane attacks that killed 2,976 people in the United States in 2001, are charged in the Guantanamo tribunal with conspiring with al Qaeda, attacking civilians and civilian targets, murder in violation of the laws of war, destruction of property, hijacking and terrorism.
Security restrictions surrounding their trial are a key topic at a weeklong pretrial hearing this week at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.
Prosecutors contend that the restrictions are necessary to protect U.S. national security and safeguard CIA interrogation methods and sources.
The defense lawyers say the CIA gave up control of that information when it disclosed those methods and sources to the defendants, and that the restrictions are aimed at preventing them from discussing treatment that amounted to torture.
Binalshibh and defendant Walid bin Attash, a Yemeni raised in Saudi Arabia who is accused of training two of the September 11 hijackers at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, were the only two defendants who showed up in the courtroom on Tuesday.
The judge, Army Colonel James Pohl, ruled on Monday that attendance in court was voluntary during pretrial hearings. Mohammed came to the court building but watched the proceedings on a monitor from another room.
Defendants Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, who is accused of providing money and travel assistance for the hijackers, and Mustafa Ahmed al Hawsawi, who is accused of being a key financial facilitator, stayed behind in their cells at a special high-security camp that holds the former CIA prisoners.
The judge also heard news organizations' request to limit closing of the courtroom when secret information is discussed. Attorney David Schulz said the law requires that any closures be narrowly tailored and can only occur if the judge finds that public disclosure of the information in question would severely damage national security.
"The public has a constitutional right to know what is being done in its name at this tribunal," said Schulz, who represents 14 news organizations, including Reuters.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)