Former CIA captives who were held in a secret prison overseas network after the Sept. 11 attacks will for the first time be able to have video chats with their families, it was disclosed at the war court Thursday.
The men being granted Skype-like calls include some of the most unsympathetic of Guantánamo’s prisoners — the alleged senior plotters of major terror attacks, including the accused 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
Details were scant. The chief prosecutor, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, called them “near real time interactive discussions.” He credited the change in policy to continuous evaluation in the Obama administration era of the circumstances of confinement in Guantánamo’s most clandestine of prisons, Camp 7 — where six men awaiting death-penalty trials are held.
The timing of the disclosure was fortuitous: It came as lawyers for an alleged terrorist, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 49, were asking a military judge to compel a video chat between him and his elderly parents, for reasons of mental health.
Nashiri is accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s suicide bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen on Oct. 12, 2000. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed, and dozens more wounded. His lawyers, on medical advice, sought the video visit with his parents to ease his depression and PTSD. U.S. agents waterboarded him and subjected him to mock execution after his disappearance into the dark sites a dozen years ago.
Prosecutors for months opposed the request. They argued that letting him speak to his parents by Skype would pose “significant security risks” to the staff and “facility.”
Then, suddenly, they reversed course in a significant departure of security doctrine surrounding the men who the CIA disappeared into its secret overseas prison network from 2002 to 2006. There they were denied Red Cross visits, access to attorneys, even notice to their families that they were still alive.
The families only found that out in September 2006. President George W. Bush announced that the CIA’s “high-value detainees” who’d been subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” were at Guantánamo. They’ve been allowed to exchange censored letters and prescreened photos since but been denied phone and video calls like the rest of Guantánamo’s 148 prisoners.
The International Red Cross welcomed the announcement, but family members of victims of the USS Cole bombing, frustrated by trial delays, decried it.
Sharon Pelly, whose sailor husband was on the ship and also suffers PTSD, said Nashiri shouldn’t get his call with his elderly parents until the trial opens — possibly late next year.
“He can wait as long as we wait,” she told reporters. She added that the parents of the 17 sailors killed on the USS Cole can never get calls from their kids.
The Red Cross will manage the families’ side of the calls. Family members can’t record or photograph the video chats. The Geneva-based organization won’t put them on the Internet and the public can’t see it, said ICRC spokeswoman Anna Nelson in Washington, D.C.
Such contacts are not “only a legal requirement but also very important for detainees and their families, especially in situations of prolonged detention,” she said.
Written and direct, “interactive” contact “enables detainees to maintain their sense of human dignity and allows the family members — be it a father, mother, wife, son or daughter —the opportunity to see their relative and hear their voice.”
The disclosure also derailed a defense lawyer’s bid to bring the prison camps commander, Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, to court to explain what kind of secrets the alleged USS Cole bomber could still have after 12 years in custody.
Former CIA prisoners can’t say in public what was done to them or where because that information is still classified. Court proceedings are done on a 40-second delay to give a censor time to bleep out secret information — and the U.S. military has been testing a similar time-delayed phone chat capability, according to one person involved in the process.
A lawyer for alleged 9/11 deputy Ramzi bin al Shibh, who was captured on Sept. 11, 2002 in Pakistan, said his Yemeni client and his family had gotten the word but no phone calls yet.
“All excited,” attorney James Harrington said in a brief email Thursday on his return from overseas travel.
All the former CIA captives got the word several weeks ago, according to Kammen, when Camp 7 staff gave them forms to fill out with names of people they’d like to see on the other side.
Defense attorneys learned about it from an atypically grinning Nashiri at court. Kammen said it should help with his morale as lawyers try to get the Saudi to help them prepare for a death-penalty trial whose next phase will include pretrial examination of hearsay witnesses.
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International Red Cross reaction
“Under customary International Humanitarian Law, applicable to both international and non-international armed conflicts, detainees must be allowed to correspond with their families. The ICRC believes that it’s not only a legal requirement but also very important for detainees and their families, especially in situations of prolonged detention. This is because family contact, both written, and ideally, direct and interactive, enables detainees to maintain their sense of human dignity and allows the family members — be it a father, mother, wife, son or daughter —the opportunity to see their relative and hear their voice.
“As such, the ICRC welcomes this development at Guantánamo as it will be the first time the families of these particular detainees will have been able to interact in real-time with their detained relative since their arrival at Guantánamo Bay.”
In court explanation
Army Col. Robert Moscati, at war court: “There is a change in policy, your honor, that is going to allow a direct interactive communication between HVDs [high-value detainees] and family members. That is expected to be operational and implemented by the end of the year. And there certainly are technological aspects to that, judge, that have to be worked out, so that could slide right a little bit, but that is the goal. It does reflect a change in policy, again, to provide detainees privileges that meet the requirements of the camp, judge, and that's really been a large part of the process.”