Guantánamo’s secret prison needed female escort guards, officer testifies

Dusk at Camp Justice Dec. 8, 2015 moments after the conclusion of a daylong pretrial hearing in the Sept. 11 case on the judge’s restraining order for the use of female guards in escort teams in a photo approved for release by the U.S. military.
Dusk at Camp Justice Dec. 8, 2015 moments after the conclusion of a daylong pretrial hearing in the Sept. 11 case on the judge’s restraining order for the use of female guards in escort teams in a photo approved for release by the U.S. military.

A female officer with the Massachusetts National Guard testified Tuesday at pretrial hearings in the Sept. 11 case that the Pentagon originally requisitioned an all-male guard force for its secret prison in 2014, but changed it after she questioned the policy.

The Army lieutenant colonel, who testified anonymously by video link from the Bay State, went on to command the Camp 7 unit, and eventually integrated two female guards into escort units handling former CIA captives in the summer of 2014, citing operational necessity. Two male guards were needed elsewhere at the secret prison and she chose two female sergeants for training to run escort units.

The change of personnel kicked off one of the most politically charged episodes at the war court: A defense bid to get the Army judge in the 9/11 case to permanently forbid female guards from touching the alleged Sept. 11 plotters awaiting their death-penalty trial. In January, the judge, Col. James L. Pohl, issued a restraining order on females handling the captives to and from legal meetings and court until he decides the overarching issue.

The battalion was having an issue staffing the mission.

Unnamed female Army officer

Prosecutors oppose the order, and want the ban lifted as war court interference in prison operations. Pentagon brass and members of Congress have called it an outrageous, sexist move in a military striving for gender neutrality. The hearing is taking place less than a week after the Pentagon announced it would soon open all combat roles to female soldiers.

Defense attorneys argue that the military provided the female no-touch accommodation for years to the former CIA captives in consideration of their Muslim traditions. Attorney David Nevin, defending the alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, announced in court that in CIA custody, there were “women involved in the torture that was offensive and frightening” to the Sept. 11 defendants.

“I dealt with the detainees as I knew them in the detention facility. The other factors were not in my decision-making processes,” the female officer testified, not long after Nevin was cut short asking if she knew “that they were sodomized by government agents, the fact that they were humiliated.”

It was an apparent reference to the CIA’s use of rectal rehydration disclosed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s so-called Torture Report released last year, on Dec. 9, around the time the lieutenant colonel wrapped up her deployment at Guantánamo.

Close contact with unrelated females is culturally inappropriate.

Camp 7 procedure 39 (5) (11)

Nevin also noted that the U.S. military already distinguishes between the sexes in certain areas — female guards don’t watch male prisoners shower, and special teams of female soldiers were formed for duty in Muslim countries to interact with women. He also quoted the clandestine prison’s special operating procedure, 39 (5) (11) “close contact with unrelated females is culturally inappropriate.”

For a time, only male soldiers were considered for duty at the prison’s most clandestine lockup. In early 2013, for example, the Massachusetts National Guard got a “male-only” manning document for MPs to serve at Guantánamo.

The woman who ultimately commanded Camp 7 from March to December 2014, a former Lynnfield, Massachusetts, police officer, testified that she was a deputy battalion commander and that an insufficient number of qualified male Military Police in the Massachusetts Guard volunteered to go to the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. So she questioned the restriction, noting that 18 percent to 20 percent of the MPs in Massachusetts were female.

“The battalion was having an issue staffing the mission,” said the lieutenant colonel. “I pushed it up the chain of command” in May or June 2013 — a time when she was not entitled to run the mission. After the male-only restriction was lifted, her boss, the battalion commander, became unable to lead them and assigned her to do it.

At the time, she testified, she did not know her troops would be running Camp 7 specifically. She also never knew about the captives’ prior CIA custody, she said, just that five of the 14 captives at the special lockup she ran protested about being touched by female guards. The Senate report on the CIA’s so-called Black Site program where the accused were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” hadn’t been released yet, and she found no reason to exclude women from the assignment based on religious objections.

Once here, she said, she heard objections from the captives to being touched by women and consulted with the prison’s contract “cultural adviser,” a civilian, who dismissed the religious objection.

The issue is not expected to be decided before February, the next round of pretrial hearings, when Pohl hears testimony in a closed hearing involving classified information the public is not allowed to know.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg