Guantánamo lawyer: We need to hear from the torturers

Richard Kammen, the lead defense attorney for Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, fields questions during a press conference at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on April 12, 2012.
Richard Kammen, the lead defense attorney for Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, fields questions during a press conference at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on April 12, 2012. US NAVY

Lawyers for the accused mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing asked the military judge Wednesday to order four key CIA figures at the time of the captive’s waterboarding to testify even before the trial begins in a bid to throw the case out.

“You need to hear from the torturers themselves,” criminal defense attorney Rick Kammen argued, seeking an indefinite freeze over the CIA’s destruction in 2005 of videotapes of interrogations of Saudi captive Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 51, the accused bomber. The spy agency’s clandestine service chief at the time, Jose Rodriguez, had the video tapes destroyed along with those showing the interrogations of others held in the secret prison network.

For his part, lead case prosecutor Mark Miller suggested that the tape-destruction issue was premature at this phase of pretrial hearings — the judge has not yet set a Cole case trial date — and the judge, Air Force Col. Vance Spath, appeared to agree with him.

Click here for the Herald’s Who’s Who Guide to the USS Cole trial.

But it afforded criminal defense attorney Kammen an opportunity to refer to revelations in a new book, “Enhanced Interrogation” by one of the sought witnesses — former CIA contract psychologist James E. Mitchell — who described how the slight Saudi was too small and slipped from the straps of the waterboard during three sessions of simulated drownings.

Kammen told the judge, if he doesn’t dismiss the case now, defense lawyers are entitled to the most graphic possible examples of “what we call torture, they call enhanced interrogation” — maybe “screams, tears, vomit ... we don’t know.” Defense lawyers want the details to argue at trial against admissibility of evidence in some instances, and against execution if Nashiri is convicted.

The Saudi is accused of overseeing the bombing of the destroyer on Oct. 12, 2000, in Aden Harbor at the behest of Osama bin Laden. Seventeen sailors died in that attack, and dozens more were wounded.

President Barack Obama has declared waterboarding torture; President-elect Donald Trump has said he might authorize it “if it’s so important to the American people.”

Nashiri’s lawyers want former CIA attorney John Rizzo, Rodriguez, Mitchell and his CIA interrogation program partner Bruce Jessen to testify about the tapes, as well as about their destruction at the time of a federal protection order.

Miller, an assistant U.S. attorney from New Orleans on loan to the case, also opposed the defense lawyers’ request for all material from an investigation carried out by another assistant U.S. attorney, John Durham, into the videotape destruction that ended in no charges.

“If the government was aware of that and came into possession of those, they would be disclosed in due course after an equitable proceedings review has occurred,” Miller said of Durham investigation documents.

Mitchell and Jessen, psychologists who helped design the CIA’s Black Site interrogation techniques, administered an $81 million contract, according to the public portion of a mostly hidden Top Secret 6,700-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the overseas prison program. Nashiri disappeared into the dark sites for nearly four years before his September 2006 transfer to Guantánamo for the death penalty trial.

Kammen argued that the four witnesses had no Fifth Amendment right not to testify out of fear of self-incrimination. “Quite frankly the statute of limitations has run,” he said.

Mitchell’s just released book provides details that even defense attorneys entitled to Top Secret information for years didn’t know, Kammen told reporters earlier this week. The Indianapolis-based seasoned death-penalty defender, however, stopped short of saying what details had not already been furnished for fear of putting his Top Secret security clearance at risk.

In court Kammen referred to the book then said:

“If the tapes showed the CIA slapping him around and punching him in the face and punching him in the genitals, that’s one thing. If they’re trying to waterboard him and that’s not working well, that’s another.”

Mitchell writes that Nashiri, who was logged in at 5 feet, 5 inches tall on his arrival at Guantánamo, is “a really small guy. Security personnel had trouble securely strapping him to the large hospital gurney that the medical personnel wanted us to use as a waterboard at the time.

“When the guards stood the gurney up on end so that he could clear his sinuses,” Mitchell wrote, Nashiri “would slide down, and his arms and hands would almost slip out from under the wide Velcro bands designed to hold him in place. We were concerned that he would fall off the gurney and get hurt. We were all feeling uncomfortable.”

The waterboarding was discontinued after three sessions, Mitchell wrote.

Nashiri missed the hearing, voluntarily, according to his lawyer.

After court, two fathers of sailors killed aboard the USS Cole and a sailor who survived it expressed disgust at the prolonged pretrial hearings — and what they believed to be a proposed start date of 2024. It was suggested that the delays and pretrial motions demonstrated the fairness of the military commissions system to critics across the globe.

“I could care less about the world,” remarked Thomas Wibberly, who said his son Seaman Craig Bryan Wibberly had a slow death aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer after the attack by two al-Qaida suicide bombers. “I could care less if they tortured him.”

Defense lawyers in both the USS Cole and Sept. 11 death-penalty case have been poring over copies of the Mitchell book at the base, both for Mitchell’s defense of the interrogation techniques and for his graphic details.

In one account of an unauthorized interrogation, the psychologist describes seeing a Nashiri interrogator using a “stiff-bristled brush to scrub his ass and balls and then his mouth and blowing cigar smoke in his face until he became nauseous.”

By then the Saudi had already bragged, according to Mitchell, “I am the emir of the Cole attack. Allah be praised, we killed many American sailors.”

Judge Spath expects to hear Thursday from a detention center commander and senior medical officer over a bid by Nashiri’s lawyers to let him sleep at the war court compound, Camp Justice. His attorneys say the commute between Camp 7 and the court retraumatizes the Saudi. A prosecutor predicted earlier in the week that the unnamed military medical officer will say Nashiri suffers from motion sickness.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg