At war court, lawyer cites sonic attacks in Havana to bolster sleep-deprivation claim

In this Oct. 14, 2017 photo, rays from the setting sun shine on the facade of the United States Embassy, in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
In this Oct. 14, 2017 photo, rays from the setting sun shine on the facade of the United States Embassy, in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan) ASSOCIATED PRESS

An attorney for a man accused of helping plot the 9/11 attacks invoked the ongoing U.S.-Cuba dispute over sonic interference with American diplomats’ brains to urge a judge to take the captive’s sleep-deprivation complaints seriously.

Ramzi bin al Shibh, 45, has complained for years that somebody has been rattling his cell with noises and vibrations. He is accused of directing the Hamburg group of hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

Prosecutors dismiss the complaint as untrue. A U.S. military doctor at one point treated him as delusional.

RELATED: Accused terrorist testifies he was drugged for protesting Guantánamo noises, vibrations

Now Bin al Shibh’s attorney wants to call a former CIA interrogator, James Mitchell, as a witness. In his memoir “Enhanced Interrogation,” the contract psychologist who waterboarded captives for the spy agency wrote that, at a secret Black Site, he discovered a piece of equipment that caused Bin al Shibh’s bed to vibrate.

“It made it feel like the room was spinning,” Mitchell wrote of his experience testing the bed. This was apparently before Bin al Shibh was moved to Guantánamo in 2006. Mitchell had the CIA change Bin al Shibh’s cell to one without a vibrating bed.

Buffalo-based criminal defense attorney Jim Harrington cited the ongoing dispute over sonic attacks harming U.S. and Canadian diplomats assigned to Havana as an example of outside interference accepted by many. In fact, the United States says that over the past 11 months, 22 of its diplomats have been victims of invisible attacks that left them nauseated, dizzy and with splitting headaches.

“They don't say those people are crazy. The happening of those things is just as difficult to wrap your head around as it is with our client,” Harrington told the judge Monday. In that instance, “They say we are looking into it. We have the FBI looking into this. We have forensic people. So when it benefits the government, they do it one way; when it doesn't benefit them, they do it a different way.”

That’s because, said prosecutor Clay Trivett, unlike a claim by more than one U.S. government employee in Havana, no U.S. employees of the prison have validated Bin al Shibh’s claim. In earlier court arguments Trivett accused Bin al Shibh, a Yemeni, of either lying or waging a jihad against his American guards.

“We have one person complaining of this over and over and over again,” Trivett argued, “despite six or seven different company guards that have come in and looked into the issue. If every single detainee was complaining about this, I would agree, we would be skeptical too.”

Bin al Shibh is held at the clandestine Camp 7 prison, a maximum-security facility for 15 of Guantánamo’s 41 current captives.

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“But that’s not the case. And by all accounts, it’s not happening and it’s only in the mind of one person that it is happening.”

To which Harrington replied that, news reports of the Havana episode say only some U.S. diplomats experience invisible attacks. He cited the example of two people in adjoining hotel rooms — with one experiencing the problem, and the other did not. “I think that helps us rather than hurts us.”

Judge James L. Pohl did not immediately rule on the request to call Mitchell as a witness. A different judge has ordered Mitchell’s testimony in Guantánamo’s other death-penalty case, although no date has been set for the former CIA contractor’s trip to the base or a video-teleconference site to answer questions.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg


Full transcript of Oct. 16, 2017 military commission hearing, here.