Do your thoughts belong to you? Not if you’re one of the five 9/11 defendants facing charges at Guantanamo. But that may have changed with a new ruling at a secret hearing on Monday. Lawyers are still trying to puzzle it out.
Of the many Orwellian rules governing what information can leak out of Guantanamo, a judicial order classifying the defendants’ “thoughts and observations” has been one of the weirdest. It prevented detainees from talking about the torture they are alleged to have experienced while in secret CIA custody – what they personally remembered of it, even what they personally thought about it.
They weren’t allowed to talk about it with journalists, human rights organizations, or foreign governments. They also weren’t allowed to talk about it in open court sessions.
They still may not be. But on Monday, according to defense attorneys, the military commission at Guantanamo issued orders lifting the classification of the defendants’ “thoughts and observations.” The extent to which the new orders will impact the openness of the proceedings or the ability of the defendants to communicate with others about their treatment in custody is still unclear. The entire CIA torture program remains classified and there are still an enormous number of limits on the ability of anyone to speak to defendants other than the lawyers who represent them.
Defense lawyers still aren’t allowed to talk about the alleged torture with others because the program remains classified, but they believe the new ruling means their clients now can. “The government lost their long-held and vigorously defended argument,” Lt Col Sterling Thomas told me. He’s the US Air Force military attorney for Ammar al Baluchi, one of the five men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks. Another attorney for al Baluchi, James Connell, said that the question now “is whether the prison will allow the prisoners to communicate with foreign government officials, medical care providers, human rights authorities and the media [about torture.]”
The Department of Defense had a different take on the decision. It said the judge had only struck down language that was superfluous anyway, and noted that “analysis of the precise meaning and effect of the ruling must await publication of the order to the military commissions’ website.” That could be another fifteen working days. But in the painfully slow world of Guantanamo hearings, the ruling created a bit of a stir. Says Lt Col Thomas: “We might be in for an interesting week.”