NEW YORK -- The government does not have to release photographs and dozens of videotapes of a Saudi citizen held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a judge ruled Friday after concluding they do not depict illegal conduct, evidence of mistreatment or potential sources of governmental embarrassment.
Authorities have said Mohammed al-Qahtani, 37, narrowly missed being one of the Sept. 11 hijackers when he was denied entry into the U.S. at an Orlando, Fla., airport a month before the attacks. Charges against him were dropped.
The Center for Constitutional Rights sued the departments of Defense and Justice and the CIA last year in Manhattan, saying the release of videotapes and photographs of his interrogation would be in the public interest.
U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, who reviewed a government summary of the videotapes, said the images were properly classified secret because it was “both logical and plausible that extremists” would use them to incite anti-American sentiment, raise funds and recruit loyalists.
The center “almost certainly” will appeal, said senior managing attorney Shayana Kadidal. He said the ruling was “very disappointing” because the judge was too deferential to the government and “under-weighed benefits to basic democratic values – that it could promote a more robust public debate over detainee treatments and torture.”
“We disagree with and are disappointed by the court’s ruling,” added attorney Lawrence S. Lustberg, who argued the case for the center.
The government did not immediately comment on the ruling.
Public interest in Qahtani grew with speculation that he was supposed to be on United Airlines Flight 93, the only hijacked aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001, that had four hijackers rather than five. Passengers fought terrorists for control of the plane that was targeting Washington, and the flight crashed in a rural area southeast of Pittsburgh, killing 40 passengers and crew members.
Qahtani was captured by Pakistani forces in December 2001 and turned over to the United States. Two months later, he was taken to Guantánamo, where he remains. As the judge recounted in her ruling, testimony and court submissions have accused the FBI and military personnel of subjecting Qahtani to isolation and aggressive interrogation techniques from August 2002 to November 2002, including the use of a snarling dog, stripping him naked in the presence of a woman and repeatedly pouring water on his head.
Attorneys seeking release of the videotapes say Qahtani lost significant weight and showed symptoms of psychological trauma that included talking to nonexistent people, reporting hearing voices and crouching in a corner of his cell covered with a sheet for long periods.
The Department of Defense and the FBI had admitted possessing videotapes and photographs of Qahtani, including 53 videotapes depicting him in his cell, two videotapes showing intelligence briefings, another videotape showing him being extracted from his cell and six pictures of him.
The only known public image of Qahtani at Guantánamo, who is held as prisoner 63, was released by the anti-secrecy Wikileaks group to McClatchy Newspapers and other newspapers as part of a massive database of now outdated risk assessments of the majority of the 779 captives who were once held at Guantánamo.
As of Friday, the Pentagon was hold 164 captives there, 19 of them on a hunger strike, according to Army Lt. Col. Samuel House.