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My Gitmo client’s interpreter worked for the CIA

Latest embarrassing incident demonstrates that military tribunals cannot mete out justice to detainees

February 13, 2015 12:00PM ET

On Monday, I learned that the interpreter who has been working for a long time as part of the legal defense team that I lead on a military commission case at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba was identified as a former Central Intelligence Agency black site worker by four of the five defendants who stand accused in connection with the 9/11 attacks.

I have represented Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi prisoner at Guantánamo, since 2008 on a volunteer basis, in collaboration with a number of military lawyers, detailed by their command at the Office of Military Commissions. The interpreter in question sat through a trial and other proceedings by our side as well as countless privileged and confidential attorney-client meetings. I thanked him by name for his efforts in a statement I released after the trial.

In the wake of a recess in the case on Monday, the U.S. government confirmed the next day that the linguist did work for the CIA, without commenting on whether he was assigned to any black sites.

Of course, my military co-counsel and I did our due diligence prior to retaining the interpreter from a list of linguists provided by a contractor working for the Department of Defense. His resume did not reflect any CIA ties, and we vetted him ourselves, delving into any work he may have done relating to prisoners at Guantánamo and beyond. At no time did he ever share with me that he had any connection with the CIA or its rendition, detention and interrogation program.

I may never ascertain whether our interpreter worked at a black site and, importantly, if he was still reporting in some covert capacity to the CIA while he served on our defense team. The implications of this revelation remain nonetheless staggering.

This revelation should undercut any trust the public retains in the integrity of the military commissions system at Guantánamo.

The most immediate consequence is that our client’s trust in his legal team will be severely shaken. Just last week I met with Darbi at Guantánamo. This time I saw him alone, but in January members of our legal team who spoke with our client were accompanied by the interpreter in question. If the interpreter who our team brought in a few weeks ago and for years prior worked for the CIA, our client may reasonably ask, was he still working for that agency while he sat through our supposedly privileged meetings? And he will inevitably wonder if we were complicit in that dissimulation and if we, too, are not who we said we were.

For our part, we have formally requested assurances from the chief prosecutor for the military commissions, Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, our main U.S. government interlocutor in the Darbi case. While we recognize that it may be challenging for him to obtain a meaningful response from the CIA, as defense lawyers, we are ethically obligated to ask him whether, from the time our interpreter was assigned to the Darbi defense team to the present day, was also working with the CIA or any other agency in the U.S. intelligence community in any capacity, covert or otherwise. We still await a response.

Ahmed al-Darbi

Not only has this revelation undermined our client’s faith in his attorneys, but it should also undercut any trust the public retains in the integrity of the military commission system at Guantánamo. The post-9/11 universe of facilities and practices, including Guantánamo, was constructed to produce intelligence and perhaps to exact retribution but not to yield formal justice. The imperatives and mechanics of justice and intelligence gathering are, to a significant extent, incompatible. Nowhere is that contradiction sharper than at Guantánamo, where those two worlds collide.

This incident is only the latest in a succession of embarrassing events that have brought military commission proceedings in high profile cases at Guantánamo to a screeching halt. These include the discovery of eavesdropping devices implanted in smoke detectors in legal meeting rooms, a secret FBI attempt to turn one member of a legal defense team into an informant and the unsuspected ability of the CIA to censor court proceedings, unbeknown to the presiding military judge and the prosecution.

These incidents form part of a mosaic reflecting the culture of Guantánamo and its military commissions. The overall picture shows that this is not a system that can be salvaged and repurposed to perform the delicate work of meting out justice.

It is high time to admit that the makeshift, parallel trial system erected at Guantánamo simply doesn’t function and certainly won’t result in justice being served. It should be scrapped, and the government should revert to the regularly constituted civilian justice system, which, albeit deeply flawed, at least affords participants greater measures of fairness and accountability.

Ramzi Kassem is a professor at the City University of New York School of Law. He directs the Immigrant and Non-Citizen Rights Clinic, which represents prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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