WASHINGTON — News organizations including The McClatchy Co., The Washington Post and The New York Times filed an objection Thursday to Pentagon plans to close a terrorism hearing next week where details could emerge of a detainee's mistreatment at secret CIA prisons overseas.
The objection surrounds the case of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, the alleged al Qaida mastermind of the USS Cole attack in 2000 that killed 17 U.S. sailors. In court hearings at the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, next week, Nashiri's attorneys will argue that he shouldn't be shackled to the floor when interviewed — a common practice at the prison — because it reminds him of trauma that he suffered in CIA custody.
The military court has said it will hold the April 11 hearing — at which Nashiri is expected to testify — behind closed doors in the interest of national security. The news organizations argue that they should be able to witness Nashiri's testimony because the details of his treatment are already known publicly and the Pentagon has a variety of ways to prevent sensitive information from being revealed.
"Congress has mandated proceedings open to the press, and permitted a limitation of access by a military judge only upon a 'specific finding' that it is 'necessary' to protect national security or ensure physical safety," David A. Schulz, an attorney representing the news organizations, wrote in an email to the Guantanamo military commission, the authority set up to try terrorism prisoners there.
Nashiri's lawyers are expected to argue at the hearing that if he's shackled, he won't be able to communicate openly because of his past experiences in U.S. custody, including being waterboarded and threatened with a power drill and handgun by interrogators. The news organizations maintain that the specifics of his treatment already have been "the subject of widespread press reports," Schulz wrote.
An attorney for the Pentagon said Thursday that decisions to close hearings for national security reasons are made outside the Guantanamo court, and that military law in general demands that "the least restrictive means possible" of protecting information be used in order to protect the public's right to know. The Pentagon lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to be quoted.
The news organizations contend that less restrictive means are available to protect vital national security information that could be divulged at the hearing. Already, the press sees Guantanamo proceedings from behind soundproof glass, and has audio piped in with a 40-second delay to allow sensitive information to be censored.
Declassified investigations show that while Nashiri was shackled in 2002 and 2003 at secret prisons in Thailand, Afghanistan and Poland, CIA agents waterboarded him, racked a semiautomatic handgun near his head and used a power drill to frighten him. U.S. officials consider other details of the interrogations, however, to be national security secrets, such as the identities of the interrogators.
Military judge Col. James Pohl ruled in January that "due to the serious nature of the crimes alleged and the historic nature of military commissions, there is significant public interest in the commission proceedings."
Nashiri's case is the first for which a terror suspect could face the death penalty. Earlier this week Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other accused co-conspirators were officially charged with death penalty crimes in the September 11, 2001, attacks.
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