[Pnews] At Gitmo, a Parade of Euphemisms Sustains the 9/11 “Forever” Trials

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 29 12:29:52 EST 2020


  At Gitmo, a Parade of Euphemisms Sustains the 9/11 “Forever” Trials

Margot Williams - January 29, 2020

_The accused were_ escorted into the courtroom by guards wearing gloves 
made of blue latex. The men were placed in seats one behind the other in 
five rows next to their lawyers. The sixth row was empty, but a chain 
was still attached for shackling a defendant to the floor.

Welcome to Guantánamo Bay, where an unused shackle is a small reminder 
of the abnormal fusing into the normal, nearly two decades after the 
first prisoners of the “war on terror” began arriving here. The 
defendants now are not chained, and they appear for court in clothing of 
their choice, often camouflage jackets or traditional garments worn in 
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen; there are no more government-issued 

At the U.S. naval base that hosts the extraordinary military commissions 
for the prosecution of post-9/11 detainees, a view of the Sierra Maestra 
in the distance is one of the few reminders that you are in Cuba. 
There’s also a souvenir shop with trinkets that show sites in Havana you 
can’t drive or fly to from here. This is not that Cuba.

The U.S. military has attempted for years to devise a system for trying 
the men accused of organizing or aiding the terror attacks against 
America, but without giving them the benefit of a trial in federal 
court. This case has dragged on for almost eight years without a trial 
formally getting underway. There have been 40 pretrial hearings and 
extended arguments over what evidence can be introduced — and, for 
instance, whether the word “torture” can be used in relation to the 
interrogations that took place at the CIA’s notorious “black sites.”

The two psychologists who helped design and execute the CIA’s “enhanced 
interrogation techniques” are now at the center of the proceedings in 
Guantánamo. Last week, Dr. James E. Mitchell testified for four days, 
and on Monday and Tuesday his testimony continued. His colleague, Dr. 
Bruce Jessen, is expected to testify later this week. Their appearances 
constitute one of the most unusual moments in the 18-year history of 
Guantánamo, because now the men who were at the center of one of the 
most controversial aspects of U.S. policy are defending their conduct in 
open court 

The psychologists were called in by attorneys representing defendant 
Ammar al Baluchi, nephew of co-defendant and alleged 9/11 mastermind 
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. On Monday and Tuesday, the defense team for 
Mohammed, who was waterboarded 
183 times by Mitchell and Jessen, questioned Mitchell. Last week, it was 
attorney James Connell III, representing Baluchi, who spent three days 
questioning Mitchell. The psychologist started his first day of 
testimony defiant, then waxed emotional, choking up at one point when 
asked about why he took the job. “I felt my moral obligation to protect 
American lives outweighed the temporary discomfort of terrorists who 
voluntarily took up arms against us,” Mitchell said, holding back tears. 
“I’d get up today and do it again.”

The courtroom in Guantánamo is a place where your ears are ordinarily 
filled with details of interrogation sessions in secret locations: 
descriptions of belly slaps, facial grasps, stress positions, slams 
against a wall, and “applications” of waterboarding (simulated 
drowning). Some detainees at Guantánamo have been held for 18 years 
without charges against them, and others have been charged with crimes 
of terrorism. Forty men remain in custody of the 780 held here since 
January 2002, when the first prisoners of the 9/11 era were brought to 
this island to be kept in American custody without being in America proper.

Guantánamo is more than a courtroom and a prison, of course. It is also 
a town with galleys staffed by Filipino and Jamaican workers, first-run 
movies, a school and hair salon, and neighborhoods with single family 
homes, along with the barracks, trailers, and tents for soldiers, 
sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guard members, and civilian workers. And 
it is a tropical island with beaches, lizards, and iguana crossing 
signs. Food choices include McDonald’s and Subway. The local pub is 
called O’Kelly’s.

With only a handful of dining choices, it’s no surprise that legal 
teams, witnesses, and visiting journalists turn up at the same place. 
Journalists who are covering the hearings kept bumping into the star 
witness at various locations last week. Walking past a table of 
reporters in the galley (Navy lingo for a chow hall), Mitchell mistook 
me for tireless New York Times reporter Carol Rosenberg 
<https://www.nytimes.com/by/carol-rosenberg>, who has covered Guantánamo 
far longer than anyone else 
I was greeted courteously by the chief prosecutor, Brig. Gen. Mark 
Martins, at the pizza joint next to the bowling alley; we used to hear 
from Martins somewhat regularly, until he stopped giving briefings to 
reporters in the media office.

Last week marked the 40th pretrial hearings in the death penalty case 
against the five alleged perpetrators of the 9/11 attack: Khalid Sheikh 
Mohammed, Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al Shibh, Ammar al Baluchi, and 
Mustafa al Hawsawi. These were the five defendants who were escorted 
into the courtroom by the gloved guards. Mitchell, the psychologist, sat 
across the room from them, in the witness box.

The large courtroom 
is crowded: five defense teams with several lawyers, paralegals, and 
interpreters on the left, and about a dozen prison escorts wearing 
camouflage uniforms. Most of the female defense attorneys and staff wear 
head coverings out of respect for their clients on the days when they 
are present; the male attorneys all wear the normal lawyer suits and 
ties. The military lawyers and staff are in uniform.

The large contingent of prosecution attorneys and staff are on the 
right, led by Martins, always crisply uniformed, with a chest full of 
medals and badges. His pedigree is unassailable: Martins has degrees 
from West Point, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. Air Force military 
judge Col. W. Shane Cohen, sitting on the bench, is the third judge to 
preside in this case; he was appointed last June.

The jury box is empty for now. These hearings on pretrial motions have 
been going on since 2012. When the trial begins, now set by Cohen for 
January 11, 2021, the panel will be made up of military officers flown 
in for the proceedings.

At the rear of the court, behind a glass wall, is a gallery with four 
rows of seats for media, nongovernmental observers, and their military 
escorts. There is also a section reserved for the families of the 
victims of the attacks. Ten family members attended daily last week, and 
a curtain was drawn between them and the other observers.

The gallery sees the live scene, but hears the proceedings on 
a 40-second delay, with the exchanges switching to white noise if 
classified issues are mentioned. It’s a confusing spectacle: Gestures 
seen on the monitors in the gallery, and the words that go with them, 
lag behind what’s happening in front of your eyes. When the judge calls 
for a break, we’re told by our escorts to rise, even though the monitors 
above our heads show the judge still seated.

It is a strict atmosphere. Observers are monitored by cameras mounted on 
the walls and military minders in the gallery. No electronic devices are 
permitted. Reporters scribble furiously in their notepads as a sketch 
artist wields her pastels (her sketches must be approved and stamped by 
an information security officer before she can take them out of the 
courtroom, and they can’t be altered afterwards).

Last week, Connell, the defense lawyer, pursued questions taken from 
Mitchell’s 2016 book “Enhanced Interrogation,” and other books by former 
CIA employees which had undergone prepublication review by the agency. 
But in a strange twist, a new classification guidance redacts categories 
of information in those books. This means that although the books 
contain information that is available to anyone with a library card or 
enough money to buy a copy, the defense lawyers try not to mention the 
forbidden categories.

The countries where the accused and others were held at black sites are 
cloaked by the classification guidance as Location 2, Location 3, 
Location 4, and so on. They are identified in the Senate’s 2014 torture 
report by colors, for instance, COBALT, GREEN, and BLUE. News stories 
and books about the CIA torture program place those three black sites in 
Afghanistan, Thailand, and Poland (there were at least five others in 
various countries).

The black site that held some of these prisoners in Guantánamo in 
2003-2004 was only a rumor until the Senate’s report, but now can be 
named in court. Mitchell was a debriefer at that site for several 
months, making a distinction from the locations where, in his words, 
“enhanced interrogation techniques” were “applied.” Mitchell and 
Jessen’s multiple roles as interrogator, debriefer, and psychologist, 
and their status as contractors in the black sites, are questioned by 
the defense as potential conflicts.

Euphemism is a foundation of the torture structure. Even Mitchell railed 
against some of the words used by the government to describe the program 
he was pursuing: “You want to watch the use of euphemism for what you’re 
doing. Don’t be fooled by ‘enhanced interrogation,’ you are doing 
coercive physical techniques,” he said last week. So there is a 
euphemism for the euphemism, which in plain English is torture.

As the testimony continues, euphemisms abound. There are code words for 
locations as well as code numbers and pseudonyms for names. An overlay 
of psychological terminology tries to give method and reason to examples 
of physical abuse. These phrases are used: “intelligence requirements,” 
“abusive drift,” “countermeasures to resistance,” “Pavlovian response,” 
“learned helplessness,” “negative reinforcement,” “conditioning 
strategy,” a chart of “moral disengagement.” Torturers used a technique 
known as “walling,” in which a detainee is thrown against a wall that is 
described as “safe” because it is made of plywood and constructed to 
have “bounce.” When walling was used, a beach towel was protectively 
wrapped around the prisoner’s neck and later became a “Pavlovian” tool 
that the detainee could be shown to remind him of the suffering he’d 
endured. This is how torturers speak, cloaking their actions in anodyne 

During the hearings, CIA cables were either flashed on the overhead 
monitor if they had been declassified, or remained hidden from our view 
if they were still secret, recounting the number of slaps, the hours and 
days of sleep deprivation, the stopwatch counts of waterboard drownings, 
the rounds of “walling.” The effect is deadening to the observer; it 
seems part of a bureaucracy of nightmares.

Just yards away from the witnesses, the accused are listening to an 
Arabic translation of the proceedings. What are they thinking? A lawyer 
for Hawsawi, Walter Ruiz, said that when he asked his client for a 
reaction to Mitchell as a witness, Hawsawi said: “Arrogant.”

On Friday, Hawsawi had to leave the courtroom to receive a dose of 
Tramadol for the pain he has suffered since his detention at a black 
site in Afghanistan (known as COBALT in the Senate report, or Location 2 
in the courtroom’s lingo). Other defense lawyers had no comment from 
their clients, but said that seeing the interrogator was difficult for 
them, even more than a decade after their torture.

Mitchell’s testimony last week focused on the treatment of Ammar al 
Baluchi at a CIA black site in Afghanistan. Mitchell did not participate 
in that interrogation and was willing to discuss the “abusive drift” of 
another CIA interrogator. This man, who died soon after his retirement 
in 2003, was identified by the Washington Post more than five years ago 
as Charlie Wise, but was not named in court during multiple questions 
and answers about his actions. In court he was referred to only as 
“NX2,” and Mitchell called him the “new sheriff.” Wise conducted this 
session of “walling” along with four of his trainees.

“It looked like they used your client as a training prop,” Mitchell told 
Baluchi’s lawyer. Mitchell sought to put distance between his team 
and Wise, saying: “We didn’t have them practice on detainees.”

A declassified CIA report, shown to the witness and on monitors in the 
courtroom and gallery, described what happened that day: “After the 
session Ammar was returned to his cell naked and placed in the standing 
sleep deprivation position, hands at eye level, where he will remain 
until the next interrogation session the following day.” 
Baluchi apparently stood in that position for 44 hours.

On Friday, after many allusions to an October 2001 statement by an 
anonymous George W. Bush administration official that “the gloves are 
off,” the word “torture” was finally spoken by Ruiz, learned counsel for 
Hawsawi, over objections by the prosecution.

“I know torture’s a dirty word,” Ruiz said. “I’ll tell you what, judge, 
I’m not going to sanitize this for their concerns.”

Ruiz described what was done to Hawsawi during his interrogations (not 
by Mitchell, but allegedly by another CIA interrogator). Hawsawi 
underwent a “bath” where his “ass” and “balls” (the words used by Ruiz 
in court) and then face were scrubbed with a stiff brush; he was hung 
naked from the ceiling; his face was slapped; he was placed in stress 
positions; and he was doused with cold water. Mitchell subsequently 
participated in a psychological assessment of Hawsawi, which was 
displayed in the courtroom. Hawsawi was the only defendant in the 
courtroom watching at the time.

“Did it matter in your assessment that Mr. Al Hawsawi had been tortured 
in this many ways?” Ruiz asked. “Did it matter to you?”

Mitchell objected to the characterization of Hawsawi’s treatment as 

Cohen, the judge, responded, “Of course he says no because he doesn’t 
think it is torture.”

Ruiz then showed a video clip of a 2018 podcast 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8o9IsvIX58Y> in which Mitchell said: 
“We never used the word torture. Because torture’s a crime.”

Guantánamo is on a tropical island that tends to be balmy, but extreme 
weather is not unknown 
<https://theintercept.com/2019/09/17/guantanamo-bay-hurricanes/>. On 
Wednesday and Thursday last week, the canvas tents housing 
nongovernmental observers and journalists were whipped by apocalyptic 
winds, and on Tuesday at 2:10 pm, tremors from an earthquake in the 
Caribbean sea rocked the courtroom 
After a brief pause, the hearing continued.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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