Guantánamo war court screens grisly ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ torture scenes

Publicity image for the movie posted on its official website.
Publicity image for the movie posted on its official website. SONY PICTURES

Defense lawyers in the Sept. 11 case screened grisly scenes of torture from the Hollywood movie “Zero Dark Thirty” at the war court Thursday in their bid to argue that the CIA gave filmmakers more access to evidence than lawyers in the death-penalty case.

The clips shown by attorneys for alleged 9/11 conspirator Ammar al Baluchi included a bruised and battered character named “Ammar” being put in a coffin-sized box, being doused with ice water in a mock waterboarding scene and being strung up by his arms, during rounds of CIA interrogation.

“This is a movie, not a documentary,” protested prosecutor Jeffrey Groharing. Army Col. James L. Pohl, the Sept. 11 trial judge, overruled the objection.

In the courtroom at the time was Baluchi, whose attorney Jay Connell said was subjected to some of the techniques, including being told to stand on a mat and threatened with a beating if he stepped off. Connell told the judge that actually happened to his client, but it was not publicly known when the filmmakers included it.

The stark images of torture punctuated a day of largely technical presentations by prosecutors on how they wanted to proceed with providing the captives’ lawyers with evidence about the years the alleged Sept. 11 plotters were kept in CIA black sites.

Lawyers for all the accused terrorists call the details of their clients’ torture critical to challenging the legitimacy of statements their clients gave law enforcement authorities at Guantánamo, after the black sites. They also want it to argue that the United States has lost its moral authority to execute them if they are convicted.

When you lie to me I hurt you.

Interrogator character in Zero Dark Thirty screening

Prosecutors argue that some information needs protection as national security secrets and some is not relevant. They say that, under the rules that govern the war court, they and the judge get to decide what the defense lawyers get.

In their Zero Dark Thirty motion, filed in 2013, Baluchi’s attorneys argue that the U.S. government gave screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow more information for the movie than the lawyers have themselves seen of Baluchi’s years in CIA custody.

They are seeking information about the CIA’s briefings of Bigelow and Boal beyond a series of partially redacted emails released to Judicial Watch under the Freedom of Information Act. But Groharing told Pohl that he had examined the redacted emails and, while they contained classified information, none of the information withheld under FOIA was responsive to the defenders’ requests.

This is a movie, not a documentary.

Sept. 11 case prosecutor Jeffrey Groharing

Pohl looked baffled by the suggestion that the information furnished to the filmmakers was unavailable to the defense attorneys. “Did Bigelow and Boal have a clearance?” he asked.

“No,” Groharing replied.

The screening itself was a departure from the dry legal arguments in years of pretrial hearings of the five men who allegedly conspired to direct, train and fund the hijackers who killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a graphic, if fictional, illustration of some of the things the so-called Senate Torture Report shows went on in the CIA black sites

“When you lie to me I hurt you,” says a Hollywood version of a spy agency interrogator. “You want the water again?... Give me a name.”

The day ended with defense attorneys photographing KSM’s scars

To which the character Ammar replies, “I don’t know,” and is strung back up.

After court, Connell said that the film contained uncanny representations of Baluchi’s real-life CIA experiences, including the mat scene in which he would be beaten if he stepped off.

The courtroom was silent but for the video clips, according to those who were inside, not watching on a 40-second delay. Defense attorney Cheryl Bormann said she looked away at one point, and was sick to her stomach.

Connell said Baluchi had seen the clips before but “was visibly upset” during the screening. “Mr. al Baluchi sat in court today and watched film clips about his own torture.”

The court was closed until Monday. Defense lawyers, prosecutors and the judge were scheduled to meet Friday in a classified session.

Not long after the screenings, defense attorney David Nevin asked for time in court Thursday evening to do some approved photography of the scars of the alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Pohl was reluctant to extend the day of the court guards declaring, “These guys and gals have been up since zero dark thirty.” In the end he granted the time.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Read the original, 2013 ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ legal motion here.