One recent afternoon in Arlington, Virginia, I found myself doing pushups alongside a host of military and civilian attorneys, paralegals and other employees of the Office of the Chief Defense Counsel. It is part of the Defense Department’s Office of Military Commissions, which oversees war court proceedings for detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and I was visiting at 1 p.m. — designated pushup time. That wasn’t my original plan: I’d been scheduled to attend April pretrial hearings in Guantánamo for five high-value detainees (HVDs) accused of involvement in 9/11, but when the hearings were canceled by the case’s military judge, Arlington seemed to be the next best destination.
The official reason for the cancellation had to do with complications owing to the government’s infiltration last year of Ramzi bin al-Shibh’s defense team. Bin al-Shibh is one of the detainees linked to the Sept. 11 attacks; he’s accused of helping coordinate and finance them. The episode complicating the hearing involved two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation who went to the home of the team’s defense security officer, a civilian contractor then employed by a company called SRA International, and reportedly interrogated him about defense team activities. The officer was made to sign a nondisclosure agreement, hinting that the FBI sought to retain him as an informant.
The judge did his best to help dismiss the notion that such machinations might obstruct the pursuit of justice, ruling in July that the FBI’s actions created no conflict of interest for bin al-Shibh’s four co-defendants in the 9/11 case, but the latest hearing cancellation confirms the trial isn’t exactly back to business as usual.
Then again, maybe this is business as usual, in a facility that defense lawyer Ramzi Kassem has described as “constructed to produce intelligence and perhaps to exact retribution but not to yield formal justice.”
The wrinkle in the bin al-Shibh trial is far from the only time the tentacles of the U.S. intelligence community have become entangled in the judicial process at Guantánamo.
Earlier this year, four out of five of the 9/11 HVDs identified one of the interpreters working for the bin al-Shibh team as a former employee of a Central Intelligence Agency black site. The government then acknowledged that the man had been employed in some capacity by the agency. It’s also worth mentioning that the Defense Department’s deputy general counsel, who coordinates the 9/11 prosecutions, was employed by the CIA from 2009 to 2014.
Additional meddling operations have included the installation at Guantánamo of microphones disguised as smoke detectors and a secret CIA kill switch that enabled censorship of the audio transmission of court proceedings. Government agents are known to have intercepted legal mail between lawyers and defendants.
What the CIA’s redaction operations do, effectively, is help disappear information about the post-9/11 torture program under the pretext of national security.
In a report on U.S. noncompliance with the Convention Against Torture, James Connell — a civilian counsel for 9/11 detainee Ammar al-Baluchi — argues that the United States “seeks to execute [the 9/11 detainees] at Guantánamo Bay before they can reveal the truth of their torture.” And the current spying frenzy would seem to dovetail nicely with that goal.
What these operations do, effectively, is help disappear information about the post-9/11 torture program, many of the logistics of which have been hidden from the public eye — and shielded from legal scrutiny — under the pretext of national security. The U.S. government is tripping over itself to ensure that a complete picture of its widespread illicit conduct never emerges, but it’s not exactly improving its image by wantonly censoring documents, withholding facts and violating the democratic process.
In December the Senate released the executive summary of its torture report. The summary barely scratches the surface of the CIA-sponsored torture regime, with the bulk of its 6,000-plus pages remaining classified. The summary’s release has made it possible to discuss certain previously classified information in court — why, for example, it is that an extra cushion is always placed on the chair of one of the defendants (chronic bleeding thanks to overzealous rectal examination). But much of the summary has been subject to redaction. The Defense Department even took its black marker to “Guantánamo Diary,” a book by inmate Mohamedou Ould Slahi. He was allowed neither to approve the edited version of his manuscript nor to view the published product, containing more than 2,500 redactions.
At The London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen notes that Slahi’s memoir “is a reminder that the CIA’s crimes are only part of the story” and that his torture instead occurred at the hands of the U.S. military, under authorization from then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But it’s more convenient for the political establishment at large when a sneaky spy agency can be made to take the blame for what are in reality systemwide policies ostensibly designed to combat terrorism.
When it comes to censorship, the opportunities for overkill abound. In “Guantánamo Diary,” the name of the late Gamal Abdel Nasser (“■■■■■■■■■■ is a former Egyptian president who died before I was born”) is redacted approximately three sentences after he appears in unredacted form. But the censors missed a few spots. In the section of the book in which Slahi warns that the “draconian punishments” regularly meted out by the U.S. justice system are counterproductive, it reads, “Violence naturally produces violence; the only loan you can make with a guarantee of payback is violence.”
Redaction is more than just visual; it’s also verbal. During a pre-pushup pizza excursion in Arlington with members of Baluchi’s defense team, I listened as they leapt nimbly over classified material, aborting the discourse abruptly whenever there was any doubt. One would-be anecdote about CIA antics was terminated after just two words: “The CIA.”
The defendants, meanwhile, lead thoroughly redacted lives. Connell, the only attorney to have met with a client inside Camp Seven — the supersecretive compound that houses the HVDs — remarked last year on the essential classification of the detainees’ very thoughts: “The state party considers the observations and experiences of its victims of ill-treatment to be owned and controlled by the state.” This means that, for example, neither the inmates nor their attorneys could share details of CIA torture sessions with such relevant parties as the Senate committee investigating the phenomenon.
Given how clearly over the top all this censorship and secrecy is, it’s often difficult to see the point. Could the U.S. really have so much to conceal that its fanatical concealment methods are worth the effort and the bad PR?
Anjali Nath, a professor at the American University of Beirut who researches the visual cultures of war, shed some light on the subject in an email to me on the logic of redaction and its effects on the viewer. “Whether the excised data [in redacted documents] is important or not,” she wrote, “viewing such obviously censored material can spark feelings of horror and outrage” at perceived danger — a perception that is created more via the act of redacting than by the redacted content.
The same goes for FBI spying and smoke-detector-microphones; if they’re going to all this trouble, the observer reasons, surely it means there’s a real threat — just as there must be a real threat necessitating other staples of the U.S. “war on terrorism” such as waterboarding, drone strikes on Arab and Muslim civilians and the annoying shoe removal requirement in airport security lines.
And the resulting horror and outrage inevitably help justify affronts to justice that require further affronts to justice to cover up. This arrangement in turn helps ensure that America’s favorite offshore penal colony isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and will instead remain as is: a redacted space and a black mark over humanity.