Two-Week 9/11 Session Ends with Arguments on Female Guards

A view of an empty cell block in Camp 6, which is made available for media tours. The Sept. 11 defendants are housed in Camp 7.

Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba – The abuse the five Sept. 11 defendants experienced at CIA black sites before being sent to Guantanamo Bay reemerged as a central issue in pretrial proceedings Friday, with defense attorneys seeking a permanent ban on female guards touching while moving the men to legal meetings and court.

The attorneys claim that the handling by female guards violates their clients’ religious beliefs and constitutes a “retraumatization” of torture that included a range of sexual humiliations, such as rectal hydrations, the wearing of diapers without clothes and prolonged nudity in the presence of women interrogators.

Roughly 14 months ago, the judge ordered a temporary ban on female guards touching the defendants. Senior guards have testified since then about the ban's impact – saying it hurt operational readiness and morale but had not caused security breakdowns. The judge, Army Col. James Pohl, took classified testimony on the issue in a closed session Thursday paving the way for the final oral arguments, held Friday.

David Nevin, the lead defense lawyer for alleged plot mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said the black-site torture was “carefully crafted” to “destroy the personality and sense of self” of his client and the other defendants. The use of female guards prior to the ban had led his client and co-defendants to choose not to meet with their lawyers, Nevin said, compromising the preparation of their defense. He added that it was clear from the testimony of current and former guard leadership that the ban did not cause any security problems.

However, prosecutor Robert Swann countered that the defense was engaged in “a lame effort” to “drown out the realities of Sept. 11.” He said the staffing of detainee moves were determined by “operational need” and that the ban is harmful to the careers of female guards. He added the lack of security problems following the ban “misses the point.”

“In this environment, there is no room for failure,” Swann said.

That the defense has interposed female guards as an issue in the case has angered many observers who have attended recent sessions, including some victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and surviving family members. In a press conference after Friday’s hearings, Robert Regg, a retired New York City firefighter severely injured when the twin towers collapsed, said he felt “emotionally waterboarded” by the defense’s arguments about female guards. Four of the five defense teams presented oral arguments on the issue Friday. (Overall, Regg praised his experience of attending the commission.)

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and other officials have called the ban on female guards "outrageous". As a result, defense lawyers have added “unlawful influence” claims to their motions in support of a permanent ban.

Pohl declined to issue a ruling Friday afternoon, which marked the end of a two-week session of pretrial hearings. The next round of hearings is scheduled to take place during the first two weeks of April. No trial date is set for the defendants, who were arraigned in May 2012.

As is his custom, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins declined to give a trial-date estimate during a press conference at day's end, only saying that it is “closer.” Defense lawyers estimated late last year that a trial is five to 10 years away.

“Noises and Vibrations” Allegedly Continue

Friday’s hearings began 36 minutes late as the parties waited for one of the defendants to show up. Ramzi bin al Shibh – who testified on Wednesday that the detention facility’s guard force are subjecting him to disruptive noises and vibrations – had initially decided against attending Friday’s session but then changed his mind.

James Harrington, his lead attorney, told the commission that his client’s reluctance resulted from “retaliation” he suffered for his testimony. The noises and vibrations resumed in full force after he took the stand Wednesday, Harrington said – adding that the watch commander even gave Bin al Shibh “the middle finger” after he complained

“We really have to get to the bottom of this,” Harrington told Pohl, who has ordered the guard force not to subject Bin al Shibh to the disturbances. (Pohl has said his order does not mean that he believes the disturbances are happening.)

Harrington said he was preparing a motion to abate the proceedings and will include a request for an independent inspection of his client’s cell in Camp 7.

Pohl asked the government to track down a senior member of the guard force so he could question the person; the current guard commander arrived at about 10:30 a.m. He confirmed that the judge’s order was placed on Bin al Shibh’s door and that the entire guard staff knew about its content. Pohl asked him if there was any confusion about what the order said.

“No, sir, they’re following your orders,” the commander said.

Harrington said after the hearings that he was developing additional witnesses for the April session, including two other Camp 7 detainees not charged in this case who are experiencing the same disturbances.