A New York federal judge agreed with U.S. agencies that releasing the Guantanamo Bay interrogation photographs and videos of a Saudi national believed to be involved in the Sept. 11 attacks would pose a threat to national security.
Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled that a number of agencies, including the FBI and the departments of defense and justice, therefore can keep under seal the interrogation images of Mohammed al-Qahtani, alleged to be the intended “20th hijacker” in the terrorist attacks, by using exemption 1 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Exemption 1 prevents the spread of information that could be a threat to national security
“We find it both logical and plausible that extremists would utilize images of al-Qahtani (whether in native or manipulated formats) to incite anti-American sentiment, to raise funds, and/or to recruit other loyalists, as has occurred in the past,” Judge Buchwald wrote in her ruling released Thursday.
In a March 2010 FOIA request, the Center for Constitutional Rights sought videotapes and photographs from interrogations of al-Qahtani from February 2002 to November 2005. The civil rights group requested the information from the Central Intelligence Agency, and departments of defense and justice.
The CIA filed a Glomar response, saying that the agency would neither confirm nor deny the existence of any such recordings. In her ruling. Buchwald agreed that the CIA's Glomar response was "proper and sufficient."
The other agencies withheld the information under exemptions 1, 3, 6, 7a and 7c in FOIA.
“The government need only demonstrate that it is logical or plausible that such harm reasonably could occur,” Buchwald wrote in her ruling, which only addressed exemption 1.
The civil rights group argued that the recordings would reveal that the FBI and military personnel subjected al-Qahtani to “intense isolation” and “aggressive” interrogation techniques, according to court documents. The group alleged that the military interrogators used tactics such as placing him in stress positions, subjecting him to 20-hour interrogations, tying him to a dog leash and making him perform tricks, stripping him naked in front of a woman, repeatedly pouring water over his head and forcing him to pray in front of an idol shrine.
In December 2002, Al-Qahtani was hospitalized for low blood pressure and low body temperature. In January 2009, Susan J. Crawford, the convening authority for military commissions, found that the interrogation techniques used on him met the legal definition of torture.
The Justice Department argued that the recordings were “properly classified as military plans, weapon systems or operations or intelligence activities,” and that their release could be a threat to national security.
General Karl. R. Horst said in a statement filed in court that enemy forces “have previously used videos and photographs out of context to incite the civilian population and influence government officials.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense William K. Lietzau, also in a statement filed in court, noted that releasing the tapes and photos could make other countries question the U.S. commitment to “shielding detainees from public curiosity, consistent with the Geneva Conventions.”
According to Buchwald, the agencies offered enough evidence of a potential negative effect on national security to meet exemption 1 and withhold the videos and photos.
Al-Qahtani was denied entry into the United States one month before the September 11 attacks. According to court documents, he sought to enter without a return ticket or credit cards, and less than $3,000 in cash. He was captured by Pakistani forces on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on Dec. 15, 2001, and turned over to the United States. He was then transferred to Guantanamo Bay on Feb. 13, 2002, where he is currently still being held.