Former CIA captives get stop-and-go video chats home from Guantánamo

The Red Cross’ videoconference room for Guantánamo detainees inside a hut containing a cell for captives at Camp Echo.
The Red Cross’ videoconference room for Guantánamo detainees inside a hut containing a cell for captives at Camp Echo. ICRC

Two former CIA captives at Guantánamo have been granted time-delayed, 30-minute video-chats with family — the first nearly live conversations with home by men who disappeared into the spy agency’s secret prison network a decade or more ago.

Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 50, a Saudi accused of orchestrating al-Qaida’s 2000 USS Cole bombing, and Mustafa Abu Faraj al Libi, 44 or 45, a Libyan who was thought to be al-Qaida’s operations chief, got the separate video calls Jan. 17 and 18.

Another so-called high-value detainee should be able to video conference with family next month, according to sources familiar with the program.

The former CIA prisoners have been held largely incognito since the spy agency started delivering them to the base in southeast Cuba in 2006. Neither the men nor their lawyers are allowed to publicly disclose where they were held and aspects of what was done to them, and by whom.

So the calls, first reported by the Washington Post, were conducted on a stop-and-go basis with security officers reviewing what the men said before the transmissions were cleared.

Lawyers for the captives have long sought video conferencing or phone calls home as a quality-of-life improvement to ease conditions that they liken to isolation in Guantánamo’s secret prison, called Camp 7. They wrote Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in May 2013.

But the Pentagon only apparently moved to implement the calls after attorneys for Nashiri, who is awaiting a death-penalty trial, asked a military judge to order family videoconferencing to treat his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

On Sunday, a Pentagon spokesman was short on details about the “near-real-time” Skype-like chats. “We continually seek to go beyond a minimalist approach to humane treatment, and we endeavor to enhance conditions, consistent with security concerns,” Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins said.

“We welcome this development since these calls represent the first time the families of these particular detainees have been able to directly interact with their detained relatives since their arrival at Guantánamo Bay,” said International Red Cross spokeswoman Anna Nelson Sunday.

CIA agents waterboarded Nashiri and, according to the recently declassified portion of the so-called Senate “Torture Report,” subjected him to “rectal rehydration” — circumstances that explain a doctor’s diagnosis that he suffered physical, sexual and emotional torture.

Nashiri’s lawyer Rick Kammen said Sunday the Saudi prisoner got his stop-and-go conversation in 15- or 30-second increments with his elderly parents and a brother, who were “thrilled” at their first chance to speak with him since 2002.

Nashiri’s lawyers haven’t consulted him since the video call, however, according to Kammen, because of a new prison policy that only permits prisoners to shave on Fridays.

Nashiri likes to shave before he meets his lawyers, Kammen said, and refused to come out of his cell recently for Tuesday and Wednesday meetings.

At the prison Monday, spokesman Navy Capt. Tom Gresback cited the military’s How-To manual for managing detainees and said “Guantánamo’s standard operating procedures allow detainees the use of clippers one day each week.”

Kammen called it the latest obstacle to the attorney-client relationship at the prison and said, if Nashiri’s lawyers can’t work out a more-suitable shaving schedule with the military, “there’ll probably be a shaving motion” in his death-penalty case.

Either way, Kammen said, the lawyers would seek a one- or two-day delay in next month’s hearings to give them time to consult the client.

Unlike Nashiri, who is seen at his hearings, Libi has never been seen in public since Pakistani security forces captured him May 2, 2005, and turned him over to the CIA.

At the time, the agency profiled Libi as al-Qaida's chief of operations, and the most important al-Qaida capture since Khalid Sheik Muhammad, according to the recently released Senate report. It said then-CIA Director Porter Goss approved Libi for all the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” except for waterboarding.

Libi was subjected to two rounds of unspecified techniques for 17 days in the summer of 2005. One apparently caused deafness, according to the report, so much so that he required hearing aides on his arrival at Guantánamo 16 months later.

The agency stopped using the techniques, according to the report, because “CIA medical officers expressed concern that additional use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques ‘may come with unacceptable medical or psychological risks.’ ”

Libi’s military lawyer, Navy Cmdr. Patrick Flor, said by email Monday that he did not attend the phone call but heard afterward from an interpreter that “the connection was very poor and the call was constantly interrupted by delays.”

He said that was probably attributed to the fact that the call was monitored.

Libi spoke with his brother, wife and sister for the first time since he got to Guantánamo, the Navy commander said. Before that he had “sporadic at best” written correspondence with family.

Flor said his client, who has never been charged with a crime while in U.S. custody, will “supposedly” get another video chat “in the future” and can have five family members on the phone next time.

Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter.

Related stories from Miami Herald