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Pretrial Hearings of 5 Suspects in 9/11 Face Challenge of Torture-Obtained Evidence

Pretrial hearings for five alleged terrorists behind 9/11 are ongoing, but evidence of their guilt may be compromised if reports that much of it was obtained by various torture techniques are to be believed.

Pretrial hearings for five alleged terrorists behind 9/11 are ongoing, but evidence of their guilt may be compromised if reports that much was obtained by various torture techniques are to be believed.

More than a decade ago, the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil occurred. On September 11, 2001, 19 men hijacked four planes and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and one was headed for the White House but, thanks to courageous passengers who fought the hijackers, that plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The terrorist attacks killed 2,976 people (2,995 including the 19 hijackers).

Five men are suspected to have planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The accused individuals are suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four coconspirators: Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali (Ammar al-Baluchi) and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi. Specifically, they are charged with eight crimes: conspiracy, attacking civilians, attacking civilian objects, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, murder in violation of the law of war, destruction of property in violation of the law of war, hijacking or hazarding a vessel or aircraft, and terrorism. They are being tried in front of a military commission at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba, which is where the men have been detained since September 2006. Pretrial hearings are occurring this week from June 17 to June 21.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

As the alleged “principal architect of the 9/11 attacks,” according to the 9/11 Commission Report, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is the most notorious of the defendants. He is alleged to have confessed to helping other terrorist attacks, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, the Bali nightclub bombings and the kidnapping and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002.

Different reports say that Mohammed was born in either Balochistan, Pakistan or Kuwait. But he did grow up and spend his formative years in Kuwait. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood at age 16. He attended Chowan College in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, and later transferred to North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University in Greensboro, where, in 1986, he received an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. Shortly after graduating, he and his brothers went to Peshawar, Pakistan, to support the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. He received a master’s degree in Islamic culture and history from Punjab University, Pakistan, in 1992. What sparked Mohammed’s commitment to Islamic extremism is unclear. It could have been his violent disagreement with US foreign policy, his negative experience in the United States, both, or something else.

On March 1, 2003, Mohammed was arrested in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, by the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The CIA transferred Mohammed to a secret prison, known as a black site, where he was subjected to torture, particularly waterboarding. In that month alone, Mohammed was reportedly waterboarded 183 times. Three years later, in September 2006, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was transferred to Guantanamo Bay, as were the other four men.

Seeking Rationale for War

On the run-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration was looking for intelligence to buttress its claims that Saddam Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was connected to al-Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a Senate Armed Services Committee report, US Army psychologist Maj. Paul Burney, who was assigned to Guantanamo’s Behavioral Science Consultation Team, was quoted as saying: “. . . a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, and we were not being successful in establishing a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link . . . there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.” To produce such “results,” the Bush administration resorted to torture.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded to produce intelligence that established a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. According to the July 2004 Select Committee on Intelligence report, “CTC [Counterterrorism Center] noted that the questions regarding al-Qaeda’s ties to the Iraqi regime were among the first presented to senior al-Qaeda operational planner Khalid Shaikh Muhammad following his capture.” Mohammed did not produce the intelligence the Bush administration wanted to justify its war. That same report said Mohammed was “unaware of any collaborative relationship between al-Qaeda and the former Iraqi regime, citing ideological disagreements as an impediment to closer ties. In addition, he was unable to corroborate reports that al-Qaeda associate Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi had traveled to Iraq to obtain medical treatment for injuries sustained in Afghanistan.”

Resorting to Torture

However, the Bush administration found someone else to produce the intelligence it wanted, and it did so through torture. That person was Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, the head of the Khaldan military training camp in Afghanistan. Captured fleeing Afghanistan in late 2001, al-Libi, under the United State’s extraordinary rendition program (in which US authorities capture suspects and send them to other countries to be interrogated), was rendered by US authorities to Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Jordan. It was in Egypt where al-Libi was tortured to provide a false link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. According to theWashington Post, al-Libi “became the unnamed source, according to Senate investigators, behind Bush administration claims in 2002 and 2003 that Iraq had provided training in chemical and biological weapons to al-Qaeda operations.” Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell used this claim in his famous February 2003 address to the United Nations that helped sell the war to the public.

Some intelligence officials, as early as February 2002, doubted al-Libi’s claim. A Defense Intelligence Agency report said, “It is more likely that” al-Libi was “intentionally misleading the debriefers.” He had been “undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest.” But that did not stop the Bush administration from using it to sell the war. In addition, al-Libi recanted the confession. He later told the FBI, “They were killing me. I had to tell them something.”

In May 2009, Ibn Sheikh al-Libi died in a Libyan prison. It was apparently a suicide but some speculate he was murdered.

Abu Zubaydah, a guard at Khaldan, was also tortured into giving false confessions about Iraq’s ties to al-Qaeda. Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002 and said Iraq and al-Qaeda had an “operational relationship.” The Bush administration jumped on this claim, as well, to sell the war.

But on March 27, 2007, Abu Zubaydah made “a rare public statement,” according to journalist David Rose. During a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (military hearings that determine whether a detainee is an enemy combatant) at Guantanamo, the tribunal president asked, “So I understand that during this treatment, you said things to make them stop and then those statements were actually untrue, is that correct?” Zubaydah responded with a “Yes.”

It is well-established that Saddam Hussein had no substantial ties to al-Qaeda nor the 9/11 attacks and that there was no weapons of mass destruction program in Iraq. That program had been dismantled through the weapons inspections that occurred during the 1990s. Thus, Iraq posed no imminent threat to the United States. The dubious intelligence produced through torture adds to the misinformation that was sold to the public to justify an illegal war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Iraqis.

Faulty Intel Stymied Counterterrorism

Not only did torture violate domestic and international law but it also produced faulty intelligence that stymied counterterrorism operations. In addition to Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave false intelligence to interrogators. Mohammed knew Osama bin Laden very well. While in US custody, he was tortured to reveal the location of the al-Qaeda founder and leader. It did not work. The key piece to finding bin Laden’s location in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and his ultimate killing by US Navy SEALs, in cooperation with the CIA, was the identity of his courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Mohammed knew that courier.

But when Mohammed was tortured, he “repeatedly misled” interrogators about the courier’s identity,” reported Scott Shane and Charlie Savage in The New York Times. Investigative blogger Marcy Wheeler, on May 3, 2011, pointed out that if Mohammed revealed the true identity of the courier, “Bush might have gotten OBL [Osama bin Laden] 8 years ago.” Mohammed also lied about bin Laden’s location, which hindered efforts to find the al-Qaeda founder.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed knew how to resist torture and gave all sorts of false information. [A former CIA official who read Mohammed’s interrogation reports, told Rose, “. . . 90 percent of it was total fucking bullshit.”] A former Pentagon analyst told Rose that Mohammed “produced no actionable intelligence. He was trying to tell us how stupid we were.” Despite this, former President George W. Bush admitted, in June 2010, that the United States waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and said, “I’d do it again to save lives.”

Mohammed was not the only codefendant who was abused. Walid bin Attash, a Yemeni national, was captured by Pakistani agents in Karachi, Pakistan, in April 2003. He was then detained in CIA black sites in Afghanistan, Poland and Romania. A February 2007 ICRC report leaked to and published by journalist Mark Danner inThe New York Review of Books detailed bin Attash’s torture in CIA black sites.

Soviet Technique Employed

He was subjected to ” ‘forced standing,’ with arms shackled above the head,” which, the ICRC pointed out, was “a favorite Soviet technique (stoika)” that was “especially painful for Bin Attash, who had lost a leg fighting in Afghanistan.” He was quoted as saying, “After some time being held in this position, my stump began to hurt so I removed my artificial leg to relieve the pain.” After his “good leg” started aching, he “shouted for help.” At first, no one came but a guard finally handed him his artificial leg, and he was placed in the standing position. At times, guards removed his artificial leg “to add extra stress to the position,” said bin Attash.

In addition, bin Attash was stripped naked in a 3.5-foot-by-6.5-foot cell. “The cell was dark with no light, artificial or natural,” according to bin Attash. He was kept there in a standing position, arms above his head and handcuffed to a metal bar. Bin Attash was also splashed with cold water, slapped in the face and punched. Such treatment occurred while he was detained in Afghanistan and Poland.

Ramzi bin al-Shibh, also Yemeni, was “reportedly arrested and transferred to US custody in September 2002,” according to Human Rights Watch. Between then and the time he was transferred to Guantanamo four years later, “he was reportedly interrogated and held incommunicado in secret CIA detention facilities, where he was effectively ‘disappeared.’ ” Bin al-Shibh was initially rendered to Jordan, according to a former Jordanian detainee referenced by Human Rights Watch. It was in Jordan where bin al-Shibh “was badly tortured with electric shocks, long periods of sleep deprivation, forced nakedness and made to sit on sticks and bottles (a form of sexual violence).”

Two Held In Secret Facilities

There is little information about how Ammar al-Baluchi, from Pakistan, and Mustafa al-Hawsawi, originally from Saudi Arabia, were treated. However, both men were held under extraordinary rendition. Al-Baluchi was “arrested and transferred to US custody in April of 2003” and held in “secret CIA detention” until he was transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006, according to Human Rights Watch, who also report that al-Hawsawi was “arrested and transferred to US custody in March 2003.” Until he was transferred to Guantanamo, “he was held incommunicado in secret CIA detention facilities, where he was effectively ‘disappeared.’ ”

Lawyers for Ammar al-Baluchi and Mustafa al-Hawsawi – US Air Force Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas and US Navy Commander Walter Ruiz respectively – were not able to comment on their clients’ treatment due to the information being classified and restrictions prohibiting them from discussing such matters. However, in separate interviews, they did hint that their clients were poorly treated. Thomas said, “My client [Ammar al-Baluchi] suffered immensely at the hands of some of the people who questioned him. And there are long-term and lingering effects.” He added that al-Baluchi’s indefinite detention has been deleterious to his client’s condition. Ruiz pointed out that al-Hawsawi’s treatment in Guantanamo has not complied with “the laws of war for detention policies and humanitarian laws.” Ruiz mentioned that al-Hawsawi is engaged in “peaceful protest” against “the conditions of his confinement” by refusing to eat meals. However, under Joint Task Force-Guantanamo’s (JTF-GTMO) measurement of who is hunger striking and arbitrary definition of what is a meal, al-Hawsawi does not count as a hunger striker. Therefore, al-Hawsawi might be hunger striking but not counted as doing so by JTF.

Different Roles Alleged

While Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is alleged to have been the lead planner of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the other defendants are alleged to have had different roles. According to CBS News, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, “as part of the al Qaeda cell based in Hamburg, Germany,” is suspected of helping “the hijackers enter the U.S. and find flight schools.” Mustafa al-Hawsawi is alleged to have been a “paymaster and facilitator for the Sept. 11 operation from his post in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, providing money and travelers checks, air tickets, Western clothing and credit cards to four of the 9/11 hijackers.” Ammar al-Baluchi, a “nephew and lieutenant of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed” and computer technician, is “accused of providing funds for the 9/11 hijackers.” Finally,Walid bin Attash” allegedly helped al-Qaeda pick and train the 9/11 hijackers, teaching them hand-to-hand combat skills in the Afghan camps.”

How the United States treated these men – men accused of a major atrocity – and the military commission’s proceedings raise serious questions about the nation’s commitment to its purported values of human rights and the rule of law.