Uncertainty over ‘improper’ release of classified CIA information in 9/11 case

Phoebe Leila Barghouty
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The 30th pre-trial hearings for the five men accused of planning and facilitating the September 11, 2001 attacks kicked off on Monday with several heated arguments regarding distribution of “top secret” information between the accused’s defense counsel, and the prosecutors working on behalf of the United States Government.

James Connell, defense counsel for Ammar al-Baluchi, brought to light a major inconsistency in the US government’s management and release of information key to the investigation of the case.


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By chance, Connell’s investigative team discovered that a Buzzfeed reporter had obtained a document from the CIA through the Freedom of Information Act this summer that contained more detailed information than what the US Government had originally shared with the defense.

“You were given information that turned out to not be true,” Connell told Army Colonel Judge James Pohl regarding the classification of the document.

911 - AFP
911 - AFP

Blurred version

The document in question was a CIA cable sent to Alec Station, the CIA’s Osama bin Laden tracking unit that operated from 1996 to 2005, regarding al-Baluchi’s interrogation. In the version shared with the defense team by the US Government, dates were blurred, large portions were redacted, and sentences were rearranged.

In the version obtained by Buzzfeed through the Freedom of Information Act, the cable was clearly dated (2 May 2003), a seemingly innocuous detail that opened up a wealth of information to Connell’s team, who had only been provided a vague timeline of their client’s interrogation.

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According to Connell, that one extra bit of information allowed the defense to identify two additional witnesses as well as several flaws and inconsistencies in the series of documents the Government had been providing them with thus far.

Breaking character from his trademark stoicism, Judge Pohl turned to US prosecutor Jeffrey Groharing and sharply why he should “have faith” in the US Government’s ability to accurately classify and fairly share information with the defense. Groharing, stumbling over his words slightly, argued that the details didn’t matter because his team believes the defense has all the information they need anyway.

Gina Haspel comes out after testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on her nomination to be the next CIA director on May 9, 2018. (AFP)
Gina Haspel comes out after testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on her nomination to be the next CIA director on May 9, 2018. (AFP)

Classified chronology

Unable to satisfy Judge Pohl’s questions, Groharing began to read from the classified chronology of the CIA’s torture program that had originally been given to the defense. No classified information was shared but Judge Pohl promptly called a court recess to clarify the matter in a more secure setting.

“Explain to me how a document that was top secret in 2016 becomes unclassified in 2018,” the Judge asked when court reconvened, “How does that happen?” By the end of the argument, Groharing conceded that the Government believes the information obtained through FOIA was “improperly released.”

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The frustrating and confusing exchange was very much characteristic of the Military Commissions, the war court system created to try those accused of terrorist activity and held at Guantanamo Bay’s notorious detention center.

The September 11 case has started and stopped several times, and to date no trial date has been set.

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