RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
For years in the courtroom at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, there's been a subject no one was allowed to talk about - torture. That's now changed. The military commission at Guantanamo held a hearing earlier this month in the case of five men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks. It was the first time that commission has met since a Senate report on the CIA's detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists was made public last year. And the fact that the torture report, as it's known, is no longer a government secret means lawyers can talk about what was done to their clients. NPR's David Welna is just back from a week at Guantanamo and has the first of several reports - plus, a warning, there are graphic descriptions in this story.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Year after year in the Guantanamo courtroom, one defendant always sat on a chair with an extra cushion. His name is Mustafa al-Hawsawi, and reporters and others who sat just a few feet away in the gallery wondered why. Why that extra seat cushion? Now there's an answer. This month, a lawyer rose to inform the military judge that his client suffers from chronic bleeding. Defense attorney Walter Ruiz, who's a commander in the naval reserve, said his client had been held by the CIA and subjected to what he called sodomy. Later, outside the closed courtroom, Ruiz elaborates.
WALTER RUIZ: In particular, I was referring to the Senate intelligence report which recounts the practice of excessive force in rectal examinations - that recounts the fact that there was no medical necessity noted for some of these procedures.
WELNA: That would be on page 100 of the Senate report. It's the first time Ruiz has been able to talk about this previously classified information in open court.
RUIZ: I couldn't have told you that before the Senate intelligence report was released. There are other matters that I can't tell you as we sit that I am aware of, but they haven't been publicly released and declassified.
WELNA: But those matters that Ruiz and others can discuss in court, thanks to the Senate report's release, have by all accounts made a big difference. James Harrington represents Ramzi bin al-Shibh, another alleged 9/11 plotter. For Harrington, the report lends credence to his defense team.
JAMES HARRINGTON: It gives much more authority to the arguments that we're making. It's just not us making up things to try and convince somebody of something, that now we have a independent source and, obviously, a very high source that verifies the things that we would want to say.
WELNA: And one of the things these seasoned death penalty lawyers most want to say, just as the Senate report does, is that their clients were brutally interrogated, contrary to American law, while being held by the CIA. The aim is to keep them from being executed. David Nevin represents Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He's the accused mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who the report says was waterboarded 183 times.
DAVID NEVIN: These men are entitled - indeed, as their lawyers, we're required by the U.S. Supreme Court to offer everything - anything that would make an argument for a lesser sentence, for a life sentence in other words. And the details of what happened to them is crucial evidence in that respect. It's mitigation.
WELNA: Still, not everything's public. Parts of the Senate report's executive summary blacked out by the CIA remain classified. The names of countries where the CIA operated secret prisons are all suppressed. Instead, they're given names of colors - blue and violet and cobalt. That's frustrating for James Connell, a lawyer for another 9/11 defendant, Ammar al-Baluchi.
JAMES CONNELL: Because it discusses the use of enhanced interrogation techniques against Mr. al-Baluchi, but it doesn't tell us what they were or where they occurred.
WELNA: The task of making more of the Senate report available for the defense rests largely in the hands of one man.
BRIGADIER GENERAL MARK MARTINS: I'm Brigadier General Mark Martins. I'm the chief prosecutor of military commissions.
WELNA: And to the surprise of some, Chief Prosecutor Martins considers the release of the Senate report a positive development.
MARTINS: It is in accordance with things we have sought. And I believe, as things will pan out, that it'll unlock aspects of discovery and of the observability of the proceedings by the public.
WELNA: So far the public has not been able to observe much. Many motions filed by the defense remain classified. Defense lawyers say the entire 6,000-plus page report prepared by the Senate should also be released. Martins insists he, too, wants that. But he warns there won't be a blank check to mine secret government data. Defense lawyer Walter Ruiz says, as in most U.S. courts, in Guantanamo the prosecution gets to screen the evidence.
RUIZ: The prosecution is going to decide what in that report is helpful to us and then give it to us.
WELNA: And the things that they don't want you to see?
RUIZ: We'll never see. We'll be litigating in the dark.
WELNA: Ruiz is not holding out much hope the full Senate report will be declassified. After all, the Senate intelligence committee is now controlled by Republicans, who've opposed the CIA probe from the start. Still, the report's summary alone has already opened a new conversation in Guantanamo's war court. David Welna, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.