Human Rights

In Gitmo's Legal Otherworld, 9/11 Trial Defendants Cry Torture

While much reporting after last week's arraignments focused on KSM's desire to be executed, torture itself is on trial at Guantánamo Bay.
Finally, almost seven years after the horrendous attacks of September 11, 2001, the arraignments of five prisoners allegedly responsible for orchestrating and facilitating the attacks took place at Guantánamo on June 5.

Sixty reporters from around the world were in attendance, as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash emerged from the shadows in which they have been held for the last five to six years.

Although all five were transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, they were previously held in secret prisons run by the CIA -- apparently in locations as diverse as Thailand and Eastern Europe -- where they were subjected to what the administration euphemistically refers to as "enhanced interrogation techniques." As these techniques include waterboarding, an ancient method of torture that involves controlled drowning, to which at least one of these men -- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- was subjected, it was unsurprising that both Mohammed and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali made a point of mentioning that they were tortured.

According to the reporters who attended the arraignment, Mohammed -- often identified simply as KSM, who admitted during his tribunal at Guantánamo last year that he was "responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z" -- effortlessly assumed a position of leadership within the group, as the men, who had all been held in total isolation for years before the arraignment, "laughed and chatted like old chums," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Clearly baiting the judge, Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann, KSM responded to a statement by Col. Kohlmann, who interrupted a session of chanting to remind him that he "was told what he can and can't say," by replying, "I know I can't cross that red line. I know I can't talk about torture," as ABC News described it. At another point in the ten-hour hearing, KSM called the proceedings "an inquisition, not a trial," and added, pointedly, "After five years of torturing … you transfer us to Inquisition Land in Guantánamo." At yet another point, as London's Times described it, he "accused the authorities of extracting his confession by force," saying, "All of this has been taken under torturing. You know that very well."

KSM's nephew, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, who is accused of helping facilitate the attacks by transferring money to the 9/11 hijackers, also spoke about torture, while simultaneously mocking the proceedings. Speaking fluent English, he responded to Col. Kohlmann's assurance of his right to legal assistance by stating, "Everything that has happened here is unfair and unjust." He added, referring specifically to the offer of free legal representation, "Since the first time I was arrested, I might have appreciated that. The government is talking about lawyers free of charge. The government also tortured me free of charge all these years."

Allegations of torture have haunted the arraignments and pre-trial hearings of other prisoners facing trial by Military Commission, but they are of particular concern to the administration in the cases of KSM and his co-accused. Evidence of torture would, of course, be inadmissible in a regular court, but although the judges in the Military Commissions are empowered to accept confessions obtained through "enhanced interrogations" (so long as they were obtained before the Military Commissions Act was passed in 2006), the authorities are so aware of how damaging revelations of torture would be to the Commissions' reputation that they recently reinterrogated these men -- and nine other "high-value detainees" transferred to Guantánamo with them in 2006 -- using "clean teams" of FBI agents to gain "new" confessions that are torture-free.

The idea that the history of post-9/11 U.S. torture can be erased in this way is darkly risible, of course, and as the comments of KSM and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali make clear, it will be impossible to proceed with the trial without torture once more raising its ugly head to impugn America's moral standing, and to cast grave doubts about the quality of the "evidence" obtained from these men.

It could all have been so different, as Dan Coleman of the FBI explained to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer in 2006. Now retired, Coleman was a senior interrogator, who worked on high-profile terror cases in the years before 9/11 without resorting to violence, and he remains fundamentally opposed to torture, because it is unreliable, and because it corrupts those who undertake it.

Coleman told Mayer that "people don't do anything unless they're rewarded." He explained that if the FBI had beaten confessions out of suspects with what he called "all that alpha-male shit," it would have been self-defeating. "Brutality may yield a timely scrap of information," he conceded. "But in the longer fight against terrorism," as Mayer described it, "such an approach is 'completely insufficient.'" Coleman added, "You need to talk to people for weeks. Years."
Andy Worthington is a writer and historian, and author of The Guantánamo Files.
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