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In this photo reviewed by US military officials, flags fly in front of the tents of Camp Justice, April 18, 2019, in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. © 2019 AP Photo/Alex Brandon

In the gallery at the back of the courtroom at Guantanamo Bay’s military commission hearing, I could open a copy of Enhanced Interrogation, James Mitchell’s widely available book chronicling his role in the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interrogation program. But Mitchell is prevented from citing some of his own words during his testimony at the hearings – the government objects, citing national security concerns.

Such is the absurdity of the seemingly endless proceedings at Guantanamo.

Although the case against the five men accused of plotting the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US has been going on for more than seven years – and their detention nearly two decades – the pretrial hearings taking place this week are significant. Mitchell and his partner, John Bruce Jessen, the psychologists who were the architects of the CIA’s systematic use of torture, are testifying in public for the first time. Despite this monumental event, a protracted fight over what evidence was deemed too sensitive for disclosure occupied much of the commission’s first day.

The US government, the prosecution, controls what information may be shared in open court. In this week’s pretrial hearing, the classification guidelines for evidence have been updated repeatedly, with the prosecution invoking national security privilege to classify information already publicly available – such as information from Mitchell’s own book, which had already been cleared by the CIA’s publication review board years prior.

Earlier this week, James Connell III, defense counsel for Ammar Al-Baluchi, asked if detainee Abu Zubaydah had been in a public hospital when Mitchell met him (Zubaydah was among the first detainees to be tortured under the CIA program designed by Mitchell in 2002, and remains at Guantanamo and has not been charged). The prosecution objected, asserting national security privilege and claiming that the existence of a public hospital would be identifying information as to the location of the country of the CIA “black site” where Abu Zubaydah was held. It’s widely known that Thailand was the location, a fact first reported in 2002.

These new rules are indicative of the problems that have faced the military commissions since their inception at Guantanamo. Defense attorneys are constantly given new rules, their clients’ own experiences are considered classified, and the government has infringed on the attorney-client privilege, bugging meeting rooms and confiscating materials. Walter Ruiz, counsel for Mustafa al Hawsawi, compared it to football: what if right before the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers gave the Kansas City Chiefs a new rule book to follow? The public wouldn’t stand for it – but here at Guantanamo, it’s the status quo.

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