Who has more info: Guantánamo lawyers or Hollywood?


More information

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ grossed $95.7 million in the United States, $13 million overseas, was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and won one, for Best Sound Editing.


Defense lawyers at the Guantánamo war court are turning the adage that art imitates life on its head with a legal motion that argues the makers of Zero Dark Thirty know more about what the CIA did to an accused Sept. 11 conspirator than the defendant’s lawyers do.

In a 418-page legal filing, lawyers for Ammar al Baluchi seek government documents on how CIA interrogators and other U.S. officials helped director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal prepare the first 20 minutes of the film. In it, interrogators waterboard, strip naked and string up on a rope a man named “Ammar” who is described as the nephew of the 9/11 mastermind who helped finance the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Prosecutors oppose the effort as irrelevant to the defense of Baluchi — nephew of alleged 9/11 architect Khalid Sheik Mohammed — who is accused of helping finance the hijackers in a case that seeks his execution.

At issue in the latest transparency challenge at the war court is what CIA agents told Bigelow and Boal as they were making the 2012 docudrama on the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Emails and documents surfaced by Judicial Watch and Gawker in Freedom of Information filings show an agency and Pentagon eager to participate in the effort — even providing the filmmakers four CIA officers to brief them in the summer of 2011.

“Nothing to comment,” screenwriter Boal said in a short email to the Miami Herald on Friday. “But good luck with the piece.”

Baluchi’s attorneys Jay Connell and Air Force Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas, both on the case because they have top-secret security clearances, want the war court judge to order the government to furnish them with uncensored correspondence between the filmmakers and U.S. officials, including interrogators’ names. They want to read an unredacted version of an internal CIA memo that talks about “an interrogation of a character who is modeled after Ammar al Baluchi” — in which the agency sought changes.

“The United States has provided more information to the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty about Mr. al Baluchi’s treatment in CIA custody than it has to his defense counsel,” they argue. Although those lawyers months ago signed an agreement to safeguard national security secrets, “the prosecution has provided no information about Mr. al Baluchi’s rendition, detention, and interrogation.”

The unusual detour through a Hollywood production is just the latest effort by attorneys to shine a light on what happened to the alleged 9/11 conspirators before they got to Guantánamo in 2006. The CIA has acknowledged that it waterboarded Mohammed 183 times, among other interrogation tactics portrayed in the movie. But nothing has ever surfaced on what was done to his nephew, who sits four rows behind him at the war court as a co-defendant in the case alleging five men conspired to direct, train and fund the hijackers who killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

Prosecutors have consistently argued that the CIA treatment is not relevant at the trial. The war court forbids from trial the use of information gained through tortured interrogations.

Defense lawyers argue they need to know what the CIA did to their clients as they carve out a defense for a capital murder trial like no other.

First, despite prosecution pledges not to bring to court any information gained through torture, the defense lawyers don’t trust them. They want to be able to analyze evidence supposedly produced by so-called FBI clean teams years after the brutal interrogations portrayed in the Hollywood movie. Plus, they argue that mistreatment is a mitigating factor that should ultimately spare their clients the death penalty.

And that starts with transparency, if not for the public then for the lawyers.

The defense lawyers’ July 31 Zero Dark Thirty filing was released Aug. 27 by the Pentagon with about 100 pages blacked out.

The prosecutors’ objections, filed Aug. 23, were still under seal Friday while intelligence agents scrubbed it of information the public is not allowed to see.

Attorneys for Baluchi, 36, also attached a DVD of the first 25 minutes of the film to the court filing.

Connell said he wants to screen it inside the maximum-security court for the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, when he gets to argue in court for the communications between the government and filmmakers.

In addition to being waterboarded, the Ammar character in the movie is also forced to wear a dog collar and is stuffed in a coffin-like box. Declassified and leaked abuse investigations have shown that U.S. agents used those so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” to break the will of CIA prisoners after the 9/11 attacks. But none have ever been specifically tied to Baluchi.

Read more Guantánamo stories from the Miami Herald

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category