CIA Can Hide Torture Allegations, Court Rules

By Ryan Singel

The CIA can hide statements from imprisoned suspected terrorists that the agency tortured them in its set of secret prisons, a federal judge ruled Wednesday,

Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the Washington D.C. Circuit Court declined to review the government’s assertions that the allegations of torture from men held in the CIA’s black site prisons — whether truthful or not — would put the nation at risk of grave danger if allowed to be made public. 

“The Court, giving deference to the agency’s detailed, good-faith declaration, is disinclined to
second-guess the agency in its area of expertise through in camera review,” Lamberth wrote (.pdf), referring to a procedure where a judge looks at evidence in his chamber without showing it to the opposing side.

The ruling comes in a case where the ACLU filed a government sunshine suit to force the government to unredact allegations from statements from so-called High Value Detainees such as 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheihk Muhammed that the CIA kidnapped and tortured them.

The judge’s decision not to look at the blacked-out text to see if secrets are involved allows the Bush Administration to continue to hide its use of torture techniques, according to Ben Wizner, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project.

“The government has suppressed these detainees’ allegations of brutal torture not to protect any legitimate national security interests, but to protect itself from criticism and liability,” said Wizner. “It is unlawful for the government to withhold information on these grounds.”

Not surprisingly, the CIA disagreed — saying the enemy would be helped by knowing what kinds of torture and interrogation techniques it uses.

“Among the details that cannot be publicly released are the conditions of the detainees’ capture, the employment of alternative interrogation methods, and other operational details,” the CIA’s Wendy Hilton told the court in a sworn affidavit (.pdf). “Specifically, disclosure of such information is reasonably likely to degrade the CIA’s ability to effectively question terrorist detainees and elicit information necessary to protect the American people”

The CIA also successfully argued that it needed to redact statements about what countries were involved in the program, saying that such allegations could destroy relationships with countries that helped with the CIA’s controversial program of secretly kidnapping suspected terrorists and shuttling them to hidden prisons in Europe and Asia, where neither families nor the Red Cross knew of their detention.

Transcripts from each of the 14 detainee’s Combatant Status Review Tribunals in Guantanamo Bay were provided to the ACLU and posted to the Pentagon’s website in the summer of 2007. Six of those included some redactions.

The ACLU also requested other documents, which turned up written statements and lawyers notes used as evidence in the hearings. The CIA redacted information from three of five of these.

The CIA made a point of noting that some of the allegations of torture were untrue, but had to be redacted anyways, because blacking out the truth and allowing false statements would let a clever prisoner paint an inverse picture of CIA torture techniques.

Judge Lamberth deferred to that argument.

“Improbable though this might seem, it is conceivable,” Lamberth wrote.

The Bush Administration admits that it authorized the CIA to use torture techniques such as waterboarding and hide kidnapped persons from the Red Cross, but continues to use euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogatoin techniques” to describe its actions.

The fourteen prisoners, who are now all being held in the military’s Guantanamo Bay prison facility, are Abu Faraj al-Libi, Walid Bin Attash, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Mohd Farik bin Amin (known as Zubair), Mustafa Al Hawsawi, Abd Al Rahim Hussein Mohammed (known as Al Nashiri), Bashir Bin Lap (known as Lillie), Ammar Al Baluchi, Riduan Bin Isomuddin (known as Hambali), and Zayn Al Abidin MuhammadGuleed Hassan Ahmed.

The CIA was forced to shutter its network of hidden prisons around the country after their existence and some of the site’s locations were exposed by journalists and plane spotters.

Judge Lamberth also served as the presiding judge of the nation’s secret spying court from 1995 to 2002. He was reportedly the first judge to learn that the Administration was spying on Americans without following the law, but says there’s nothing to worry about.