Suspected 9/11 Hijacker Videos Kept Classified
MANHATTAN (CN) - Videos and photographs of the only Guantanamo detainee whom officials admit was tortured, alleged Sept. 11, 2001, plotter Mohammad al-Qahtani, need not come to light, a federal judge ruled.
The U.S. government accused al-Qahtani of plotting to be the "20th hijacker" in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Court papers say that an immigration agent at an airport in Orlando, Fla., turned al-Qahtani back to Saudi Arabia after finding him with "no return ticket, no credit cards, and less than $3,000 cash."
Pakistan forces captured him on the Afghanistan border on Dec. 15, 2001, and sent him to Guantanamo two months later.
There officials admit that Al-Qahtani faced so-called "aggressive" interrogation practices such as 20-hour questioning, stress positions, forced nudity, waterboarding, religious and sexual humiliation, and threats with a snarling dog.
Al-Qahtani later recanted his accusations against other detainees. His lawyers describe him as a "broken man" who has been found "talking to nonexistent people" and "crouching in a corner of his cell covered in a sheet for hours on end."
The Pentagon dropped all charges against him without prejudice in 2008.
Convening Authority for Military Commissions Susan Crawford indicated that this was because al-Qahtani's treatment "met the legal definition of torture."
On March 4, 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a nonprofit that represents al-Qahtani and other Guantanamo detainees, filed Freedom of Information Act requests seeking footage and photographs of his interrogations.
The CIA refused to confirm or deny the existence of the images. Such an answer is known as a Glomar responses, named after the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a ship used in a classified CIA project to raise a sunken Soviet submarine from the Pacific Ocean.
Citing national security exemptions, the FBI and Department of Defense clammed up after identifying six photographs and 53 videotapes of al-Qahtani inside his cell. One video captured a forced cell extraction and two depict intelligence debriefings.
When the rights group sued in early 2012, Sandra Babcock, a law professor working with the CCR, told reporters that the footage she viewed was "sickening" and had the power to "change the debate" surrounding Guantanamo.
She said a gag order kept her from elaborating.
The FBI, meanwhile, denied in the court that the footage being requested depicted any mistreatment.
A little over a week after hearing oral arguments on the case, U.S. District Judge Naomi Buchwald ruled late Thursday that the materials were properly classified.
According to the 33-page ruling, Maj. Gen. Karl Horst told the court that disclosure would endanger the "lives and physical safety" of U.S. troops, diplomats and aid workers by helping "garner support for attacks against them."
Horst added that the footage and images could be "easily manipulated" to "falsely indicate" mistreatment where he claims none occurred.
Judge Buchwald privately reviewed the "FBI's individualized description" of the tapes, rather than the tapes themselves, to test this assertion. She said that her perusal of those summaries "confirm the government's public representation that these records do not document any abuse or mistreatment."
Shane Kadidal, a senior attorney for the CCR, said that judge rejected their offer to submit their own classified briefs with their descriptions of the tapes that they viewed in secure facilities.
"It's a really curious FOIA case in that we've seen the material and can't say a thing about it," he said.
Though the abuse at Abu Ghraib had been a "watershed" moment for public debate, Kadidal said the arguments about the tape's potential for inciting and recruiting extremists could have been used to keep them under wraps.
Judge Buchwald also credited the "entirely plausible" testimony by Navy Rear Admiral David Woods that footage showing the "appearance of cooperation with the United States" could chill intelligence collection by making "it substantially less likely that the detainee will cooperate and provide information in the future."
"If a potential source has any doubts about the government's ability to protect cooperative relationships, that is, if he or she were to learn that the government has disclosed the identity of another source - or the identity of a person suspected to be a source - his or her desire to cooperate would likely diminish," Woods wrote in his declaration.
Assistant Secretary of Defense William Lietzau testified: "If images of detainees were to be released to any member of the public who requests them, detainees would quickly learn that these videos and photographs are a useful means for communicating with others, potentially including al-Qaida and associated enemy forces."
He claimed that disclosure of the images would cause "international partners to question the U.S. commitment to its longstanding policy and practice of shielding detainees from public curiosity, consistent with the Geneva Conventions."
The 33-page opinion does not quote Lietzau as being concerned about the admitted torture's implications for the Geneva Conventions could trouble international partners.
Kadidal called the prospects for an appeal "probably likely."