By Carol D. Leonnig and Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 4, 2006
The Bush administration has told a federal judge that terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons should not be allowed to reveal details of the "alternative interrogation methods" that their captors used to get them to talk.
The government says in new court filings that those interrogation methods are now among the nation's most sensitive national security secrets and that their release -- even to the detainees' own attorneys -- "could reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave damage." Terrorists could use the information to train in counter-interrogation techniques and foil government efforts to elicit information about their methods and plots, according to government documents submitted to U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton on Oct. 26.
The battle over legal rights for terrorism suspects detained for years in CIA prisons centers on Majid Khan, a 26-year-old former Catonsville resident who was one of 14 high-value detainees transferred in September from the "black" sites to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many detainees at Guantanamo, is seeking emergency access to him.
The government, in trying to block lawyers' access to the 14 detainees, effectively asserts that the detainees' experiences are a secret that should never be shared with the public.
Because Khan "was detained by CIA in this program, he may have come into possession of information, including locations of detention, conditions of detention, and alternative interrogation techniques that is classified at the TOP SECRET//SCI level," an affidavit from CIA Information Review Officer Marilyn A. Dorn states, using the acronym for "sensitive compartmented information."
Gitanjali Gutierrez, an attorney for Khan's family, responded in a court document yesterday that there is no evidence that Khan had top-secret information. "Rather," she said, "the executive is attempting to misuse its classification authority . . . to conceal illegal or embarrassing executive conduct."
Joseph Margulies, a Northwestern University law professor who has represented several detainees at Guantanamo, said the prisoners "can't even say what our government did to these guys to elicit the statements that are the basis for them being held. Kafka-esque doesn't do it justice. This is 'Alice in Wonderland.' "
Kathleen Blomquist, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said yesterday that details of the CIA program must be protected from disclosure. She said the lawyer's proposal for talking with Khan "is inadequate to protect unique and potentially highly classified information that is vital to our country's ability to fight terrorism."
Government lawyers also argue in court papers that detainees such as Khan previously held in CIA sites have no automatic right to speak to lawyers because the new Military Commissions Act, signed by President Bush last month, stripped them of access to U.S. courts. That law established separate military trials for terrorism suspects.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is considering whether Guantanamo detainees have the right to challenge their imprisonment in U.S. courts. The government urged Walton to defer any decision on access to lawyers until the higher court rules.
The government filing expresses concern that detainee attorneys will provide their clients with information about the outside world and relay information about detainees to others. In an affidavit, Guantanamo's staff judge advocate, Cmdr. Patrick M. McCarthy, said that in one case a detainee's attorney took questions from a BBC reporter with him into a meeting with a detainee at the camp. Such indirect interviews are "inconsistent with the purpose of counsel access" at the prison, McCarthy wrote.
Dorn said in the court papers that for lawyers to speak to former CIA detainees under the security protocol used for other Guantanamo detainees "poses an unacceptable risk of disclosure." But detainee attorneys said they have followed the protocol to the letter, and none has been accused of releasing information without government clearance.
Captives who have spent time in the secret prisons, and their advocates, have said the detainees were sometimes treated harshly with techniques that included "waterboarding," which simulates drowning. Bush has declared that the administration will not tolerate the use of torture but has pressed to retain the use of unspecified "alternative" interrogation methods.
The government argues that once rules are set for the new military commissions, the high-value detainees will have military lawyers and "unprecedented" rights to challenge charges against them in that venue.
U.S. officials say Khan, a Pakistani national who lived in the United States for seven years, took orders from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the man accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Mohammed allegedly asked Khan to research poisoning U.S. reservoirs and considered him for an operation to assassinate the Pakistani president.
In a separate court document filed last night, Khan's attorneys offered declarations from Khaled al-Masri, a released detainee who said he was held with Khan in a dingy CIA prison called "the salt pit" in Afghanistan. There, prisoners slept on the floor, wore diapers and were given tainted water that made them vomit, Masri said. American interrogators treated him roughly, he said, and told him he "was in a land where there were no laws."
Khan's family did not learn of his whereabouts until Bush announced his transfer in September, more than three years after he was seized in Pakistan.
The family said Khan was staying with a brother in Karachi, Pakistan, in March 2003 when men, who were not in uniform, burst into the apartment late one night and put hoods over the heads of Khan, his brother Mohammad and his brother's wife. The couple's 1-month-old son was also seized.
Another brother, Mahmood Khan, who has lived in the United States since 1989, said in an interview this week that the four were hustled into police vehicles and taken to an undisclosed location, where they were separated and held in windowless rooms. His sister-in-law and her baby remained together, he said.
According to Mahmood, Mohammad said they were questioned repeatedly by men who identified themselves as members of Pakistan's intelligence service and others who identified themselves as U.S. officials. Mohammad's wife was released after seven days, and he was released after three months, without charge. He was left on a street corner without explanation, Mahmood said.
Periodically, he said, people who identified themselves as Pakistani officials contacted Mohammad and assured him that his brother would soon be released and that they ought not contact a lawyer or speak with the news media.
"We had no way of knowing who had him or where he was," Mahmood Khan said this week at the family home outside Baltimore. He said they complied with the requests because they believed anything else could delay his brother's release.
In Maryland, Khan's family was under constant FBI surveillance from the moment of his arrest, his brother said. The FBI raided their house the day after the arrest , removing computer equipment, papers and videos. Each family member was questioned extensively and shown photographs of terrorism suspects that Mahmood Khan said none of them recognized. For much of the next year, he said, they were followed everywhere.
"Pretty much we were scared," he said. "We live in this country. We have everything here."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.