Photo of Ammar al Baluchi provided by his defense team.

Photo of Ammar al Baluchi provided by his defense team.

Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba – A forensic psychiatrist testified this week that a 9/11 defendant’s incriminating statements to FBI agents on Guantanamo Bay were the product of fear drilled into him by the CIA during years of prior harsh treatment and isolation. The government claims it was able to produce voluntary statements despite the preceding coercion and hopes to use the claimed confessions at trial.

Dr. Charles Morgan testified for the defense of Ammar al Baluchi. He said the defendant would have been suffering the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder during his January 2007 confessions to the FBI. Morgan testified that the “conditioned fear memories” instilled in al Baluchi by the CIA would have been triggered by the subsequent FBI sessions, which took place in a location that resembled former CIA black sites.

“Whether it's a cue or a context, it will cause a reemergence of the conditioned memory and reactions,” Morgan said on Tuesday, under direct examination by Alka Pradhan, a lawyer for al Baluchi.

The al Baluchi team initially retained Morgan, an expert on PTSD and the effects of stress on memory, as a consultant in 2016. While Morgan worked part-time for the CIA between 2003-2010 on assignments with the Office of Medical Services, he did not participate in the agency’s Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation (RDI) Program. He testified this week that he opposed the controversial program.

During his often-tense cross examination by prosecutor Jeffrey Groharing, Morgan said that he did not dispute accounts of the January 2007 sessions given by the FBI agents. In earlier testimony and in their written summaries of the interviews, the agents portrayed al Baluchi’s participation at that time as cordial and voluntary. Morgan testified, however, that the CIA fear-conditioned al Baluchi into being compliant and that the detainee could not “meaningfully distinguish” between his new interrogators and prior ones.

“At this point in time, he's already exhibited more than enough symptoms to have PTSD that caused him pain and distress and psychological despair,” Morgan testified on Wednesday. “They are interviewing a person who's been traumatized and a person who suffers from a significant mental illness.”

Later in his cross examination, Groharing presented Morgan with incriminating documents that the FBI showed al Baluchi during the interviews, including evidence of wire transfers he is accused of making to some of the 9/11 hijackers. Al Baluchi is a nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, who is accused of masterminding the attacks.

“Do you agree that being confronted with evidence of his guilt is a possible explanation for Mr. [al Blauchi’s) admission?” Groharing asked from the court’s remote hearing room in Virginia.

“It's a possibility,” Morgan replied.

Morgan is a longtime faculty member at both Yale and the University of New Haven, and he also worked for many years at the National Center for PTSD. He is the latest witness to testify in the ongoing battle over the admissibility of the four remaining defendants’ statements to the FBI. His testimony took up four days of the session’s fourth week. The judge, Air Force Col. Matthew McCall, plans to hear witness testimony in the fifth and final week of this session from a Navy psychiatrist who treated the high-value detainees on Guantanamo Bay after their arrival from the black sites. McCall has indicated that he intends to decide whether to suppress the January 2007 FBI statements before his planned retirement at the end of the year.

Morgan’s testimony focused largely on the science of the effects of severe trauma on the brain; it also touched on competing sentiments on the RDI program within the CIA. Morgan testified that he knew professionally Drs. James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the contract psychologists hired by the CIA to build an interrogation program that used coercive methods. The techniques included waterboarding, walling, slapping, enforced stress positions, prolonged sleep deprivation and the use of cramped confinement boxes, among others.

Earlier testimony by Mitchell and Jessen established that they developed the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” based on those used in the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, or SERE, programs, which train service members for scenarios that might result from their capture by hostile forces.

Morgan testified this week that, as part of his research work, he began studying the effects of SERE training on participants in the late 1990s. The data collected over many studies showed conclusively that the stressors in the SERE program led to dramatic impairments of cognition and memory, he said. Under both direct and cross examinations, Morgan recounted warning Mitchell about using SERE-based methods when he encountered him at a CIA location in 2003.

"Why in the world would you be creating false memories?’” Morgan recounted asking Mitchell. “Because once you do, it's a rabbit hole. You can't tell the difference between a true or a false memory."

Under redirect examination by Pradhan Thursday morning, Morgan also recalled a CIA employee involved in the RDI program expressing concerns to him at his office within the agency several years later. He said the person was "terrified" and sat in his office "and cried."

“‘These people are Nazis,’” Morgan testified the employee told him. “‘I don’t know how to get away from them because I’m afraid of what they will do.’”

Morgan said he provided advice on how the individual could extricate himself from the program.

“I've never heard from that person again,” Morgan said.

Morgan was highly critical of Mitchell’s second round of testimony during these suppression hearings. That prior testimony took place in February. (Mitchell first testified in January 2020 at the second-to-last pretrial hearing prior to a year-and-half delay in proceedings caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.) Mitchell testified in February that the effects of the CIA’s “classical conditioning” from the enhanced techniques would have dissipated by the time of the detainees’ arrival on Guantanamo Bay through a process known as “fear extinction.” Groharing, who questioned Mitchell during that session, elicited the testimony to support the government’s claims that the defendants talked to the FBI voluntarily.

Morgan referred to Mitchell’s claims as “incredibly misleading,” “a myth,” “a lie” and “fantasy” at various points of his testimony. He repeatedly said that Mitchell’s opinions ignored decades of data on the profound effects of intense stress and trauma on the functioning of human brains.

Morgan testified that SERE programs – which are meant to provide a controlled “taste” of what service members might encounter – have led to PTSD in some participants. He told Pradhan on Wednesday that the type of “uncontrollable stress” inflicted upon al Baluchi at CIA black sites causes brain damage and dysfunction that “endure in most people for the rest of their life." Morgan said that individuals are more likely to develop PTSD when the trauma is caused violently by another person, such as in torture or sexual assaults.

Throughout the testimony, Pradhan referred often to a CIA Office of Inspector General report on al Baluchi’s abusive treatment, which included the use of unapproved torture techniques. One CIA individual described al Baluchi’s first black site, known as Cobalt or Location 2, as a place resembling “an old Nazi concentration camp.”

In March 2022, Morgan conducted a forensic inspection of the Camp Echo 2 location on Guantanamo Bay where the FBI conducted its reinterrogations of al Baluchi and other high-value detainees. He also inspected the remains of the former Camp 7 facility that housed the detainees until 2021. In a written declaration for the al Baluchi defense teams, Morgan said that similarities between the CIA black sites and both Echo 2 and Camp 7 would have enhanced “the fear based contextual conditioning” that al Baluchi experienced during his January 2007 FBI interviews.

The CIA used Camp Echo 2 as a black site between 2003 and 2004; al Baluchi did not spend time at that location. His co-defendant, Mustafa al Hawsawi, did, as did Ramzi bin al Shibh, whom McCall severed from the case last September after finding he has become mentally incompetent to assist in his own defense. At the end of the second week of this session, McCall visited Camp Echo 2 as he weighs whether the FBI statements were sufficiently attenuated from the earlier periods of CIA coercion.

The government, which has the legal burden of establishing the voluntariness of the defendants’ statements, is nearly done with its suppression case. Defense teams have expressed an interest in McCall ruling on suppression before his retirement, even if they do not get access to dozens of desired witnesses – many of them covert CIA officers – that the government has not agreed to produce. For the first time this session, McCall heard oral arguments on defense motions to compel additional witnesses, including a covert CIA individual who participated in the black site interrogations. McCall has yet to rule on that motion. However, he ordered the parties this session to begin discussing the logistical and security arrangements for possible testimony by covert witnesses.

Prosecutors plan to call a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Welner, as their last witness at a future session, either in the summer or fall. In April 2023, in the military commission against Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, Welner testified that al Nashiri’s past "unpleasant" treatment by the CIA did not render him incapable of “demonstrating free will” and choosing to discuss his alleged role in the October 2000 USS Cole bombing with federal agents. However, the judge in that case suppressed al Nashiri’s January 2007 statements after concluding the CIA’s torture rendered his statements involuntary. The government has appealed that August 2023 ruling.

McCall expects to hear final oral arguments on the suppression dispute in November. However, the judge, who has delayed his retirement twice to provide continuity for the suppression litigation, indicated that he may not be bound by that schedule.

“I have not asked to extend my retirement a third time," McCall said. "But I still have not applied for any jobs and I have a lot of flexibility. And so if I have to adjust, I can.”

About the author: John Ryan (john@lawdragon.com) is a co-founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Lawdragon Inc., where he oversees all web and magazine content and provides regular coverage of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. When he’s not at GTMO, John is based in Brooklyn. He has covered complex legal issues for 20 years and has won multiple awards for his journalism, including a New York Press Club Award in Journalism for his coverage of the Sept. 11 case.  His book on the 9/11 case is scheduled for publication in September 2024.