Videos give up-close look at detainee wing
Newly declassified surveillance videos and logs give the most vivid look yet at how terrorism detainees were treated inside a super-secret wing of the Charleston Naval Consolidated Brig, the same facility reportedly under consideration to house some of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detainees.
These videos show one of the detainees, Ali Saleh al-Marri, struggling with his six years of solitary confinement, hiding under a metal bed without a mattress and circling his tiny windowless cell for hours.
Other videos later in al-Marri's incarceration show him bantering easily with brig staff as they place blackout goggles, earmuffs and chains on him before taking him out of his cell.
Al-Marri's lawyers provided the videos and logs to The Post and Courier. The videos were classified until a month ago, when the Defense Department released them for al-Marri's criminal case. Portions were shown in a courtroom in late October, when al-Marri made a tearful apology about his connections to senior al-Qaida leaders and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The videos provide a window into the brig's "Special Housing Unit," a wing that was set aside for al-Marri and two other detainees after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They're coming to light as the Obama administration reportedly is poised to decide where to put detainees in the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention facility, with some reports suggesting that the brig in Hanahan is a leading contender to take at least a handful.
A key date is Nov. 16, the target set by the Department of Justice and Pentagon to make a decision on the Guantanamo detainees. "We're hoping to get an answer on that date," said Maj. Tanya Bradsher, the Pentagon's press officer for detainee affairs.
The videos also are notable because of the brig's secretive past. While officers at Guantanamo have given hundreds of tours and interviews, the Pentagon has nixed media requests to interview staff and tour the brig. These videos are believed to be the first images of a Charleston brig detainee inside his cell.
The Navy built the brig in 1989 near the southern end of the Naval Weapons Station as a medium-security facility. Its primary mission has been to incarcerate military prisoners serving sentences shorter than 10 years. It has 10 triangular units, each with cells lining a common area, a design similar to some college dormitories. It has an array of rehabilitation programs with a heavy emphasis on helping inmates overcome substance abuse problems.
Its mission changed when Yaser Hamdi arrived in 2002 after being captured in the basement of a fortress in Afghanistan. The Bush administration designated Hamdi an enemy combatant and put him in military custody without formal charges. Two other designated enemy combatants, Jose Padilla and al-Marri, soon followed. Brig officials set aside one of the 10 triangular units and dubbed it the brig's Special Housing Unit.
When al-Marri arrived in June 2003, he was placed in a tiny concrete cell with windows that were covered and a metal bed without a mattress. Surveillance videos taken during this period show him pacing circles around his cell hour after hour.
Logs show that while other enemy combatants were given entertainment materials and recreation time, al-Marri's cell remained devoid of anything but a sink, toilet and bed. One video shows him hiding under the sink and the bed to escape the surveillance camera and glaring light. Other videos show him sleeping on the metal bed without a blanket. The din from a fan placed outside his cell can be heard. Al-Marri's attorney, Andy Savage, said he thinks the buzzing fan was a tactic to soften him up before interrogations. When al-Marri was moved to his cell and taken to an interrogation cell, guards put goggles on his eyes to blind him and chained his legs and arms so he couldn't touch anyone. "It was all part of the isolation," Savage said. "That was the worst part."
One video shows guards taking him to the interrogation room to see an eye doctor. At one point, the eye doctor asks him to cover his eyes even though his arms and legs are chained.
Al-Marri's legal team also obtained logs documenting the detainee's every movement, including his eating and toilet habits. One log gives guards permission to play "games ... as long as they are legal," a reference to times when guards might remove his blanket or give him only cold meals. Another log in December 2003 states, "Interrogators will be back Monday 15 Sep 03 at 12:30. Until that time we are to take note of all emotions and every little movement (al-Marri) makes."
Other logs, however, show how brig staff took careful steps to make sure daylight saving time didn't interfere with the detainees' observance of Ramadan. E-mails between brig staffers obtained by The Post and Courier also show many brig officials tried to improve conditions and feared for the detainees' mental health.
Savage said the logs and videos show how al-Marri's treatment changed over time. "The brig staff, the regular G.I. Joes who run the place, treated him like a human being."
Savage said Defense Department interrogators were responsible for the harsh conditions. At one point, interrogators threatened to bring al-Marri's wife and children from Qatar and torture them in a cell next to his, Savage said. "Those were the darkest days."
The Pentagon repeatedly has denied that any of its actions constituted torture.
When the interrogations stopped about 18 months after al-Marri was put in the brig, conditions improved. By 2007, al-Marri had good relations with brig staff. When al-Marri's father died, the brig's commanding officer wrote a personal letter offering his condolences. In a 2007 video, al-Marri can be seen chatting easily with guards as he's removed from the cell.
Savage is a critic of what he said were wrongheaded legal and intelligence-gathering tactics during the tenure of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He remains a bigger cheerleader for the brig and says it would be a suitable place for some of the less dangerous Guantanamo detainees. "The brig is tight. There are no mistakes there; everything is triple and quadruple checked."
Savage said the harsh interrogation methods offer lessons in how not to handle detainees. During at least three interrogations, al-Marri's head and mouth were wrapped until he gagged, a tactic Savage called "dry-boarding." A video of this interrogation was shown privately last week to U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm for al-Marri's sentencing hearing. Officials didn't release the tape to al-Marri's lawyers for "what they said were national security reasons," Savage said.
Mihm could have sentenced al-Marri to 15 years but instead gave him eight years and four months because of what he called "very severe" conditions while he was held in the brig. "My personal belief as a judge is that was totally unacceptable," Mihm said. "That's not who we are."
Al-Marri admitted he trained in an al-Qaida camp, stayed in al-Qaida safe houses in Pakistan and had contact with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a top al-Qaida figure believed to be the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
A day after he took office, President Barack Obama reversed the Bush administration's enemy combatant stance and ordered al-Marri transferred from military custody to the courts. Before al-Marri agreed to plead guilty, al-Marri sat with investigators for hours, Savage said. In this less-threatening setting, al-Marri verified some of the government's accusations against him and steered the government away from errors in its intelligence.
"It was a lesson in building trust and having open communications is beneficial to the United States and al-Marri," he said. "In the interrogations, they got nothing."
Reach Tony Bartelme at email@example.com or 937-5554.