DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The new movie "The Report" tells the true story of a U.S. Senate staffer who doggedly investigated the CIA's torture program after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. This is a look back at a controversial part of our country's past. But the CIA's use of torture continues to have huge implications at the U.S. military court and prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 40 accused terrorists are still being held.
Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team reports. And just a warning here - this story may be disturbing to some listeners because it does include descriptions of torture techniques.
SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: When the United States captured the people it believed were responsible for 9/11, it put them in an overseas network of secret CIA prisons called black sites and for years subjected them to what it called enhanced interrogation techniques. That was a euphemism for torture - beatings, waterboardings, mock burials. A decade later, a Senate report concluded that torturing those prisoners was not only immoral and illegal but also ineffective. But the fact that they were tortured is a major reason there has still been no trial and may never be a trial for alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other Guantanamo prisoners. That's partly because evidence obtained through torture can rarely be used at trial, and it's because information that is still secret, like the identities of the torturers, could come out at trial.
RICK KAMMEN: The CIA absolutely does not want that to happen.
PFEIFFER: Rick Kammen is the former lead defense attorney for the man charged with orchestrating the USS Cole naval warship bombing, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who's been held at Guantanamo for 13 years.
KAMMEN: What the public has seen through the Senate torture report probably represents 30% of the reality.
PFEIFFER: You feel like there are still details that could be conscious-shocking?
KAMMEN: Yes. As a criminal defense lawyer, I thought my ability to be shocked was pretty high. And yet, some of the things I've seen and read are genuinely breathtaking and horrifying.
PFEIFFER: Is there anything you can share that isn't classified?
PFEIFFER: The physical legacy of torture is on display in Guantanamo's courtroom. Mustafa al-Hawsawi is a prisoner accused of financing the 9/11 hijackers. The CIA subjected him to what it called rectal rehydrations. CIA documents say his captors used the largest tube they had for those procedures, conducted them with, quote, "excessive force" and described them as a means of behavior control. CIA records show he was later diagnosed with a condition called rectal prolapse and other related problems.
Al-Hawsawi now sits on a pillow when he appears in court. Guantanamo medical officials have tried to reduce his discomfort with surgery but acknowledge only that he has hemorrhoids. Defense attorney Walter Ruiz represents al-Hawsawi and says he suffers permanent injuries from the black sites.
WALTER RUIZ: And for them to say that it was a simple case of hemorrhoids is an absolute disgrace.
PFEIFFER: Al-Hawsawi's physical condition has consumed hours of debate in Guantanamo's military courtroom. It's an example of why the 9/11 case has proved so difficult to get to trial.
TERRY ROCKEFELLER: The fact of torture is at the heart of what's delaying these trials.
PFEIFFER: That's Terry Rockefeller, whose only sibling, her younger sister, Laura, died at age 41 in the World Trade Center attacks. Rockefeller has made six trips to Guantanamo to watch its military court proceedings.
ROCKEFELLER: For the people who think the torture's in the past, they don't realize that it's coming up over, and over and over again. They don't realize how alive the issue remains.
PFEIFFER: The torture inflicted on those CIA prisoners was at the core of almost every discussion in Guantanamo's military court during the two weeks I spent there this summer. It's led to years of ongoing legal fights over what evidence is admissible, over what details about prisoner treatment should be classified, over whether prisoners are getting proper medical care, over whether they're entitled to more lenient sentences because they were tortured.
MICHEL PARADIS: If there is one feature of Guantanamo that probably can't be repeated enough - because I think it is the original sin that creates all these problems - is the use of torture.
PFEIFFER: Michel Paradis is a defense attorney for Al-Nashiri, the USS Cole bombing suspect.
PARADIS: All this dysfunction, why this 9/11 case, for example, has taken all this time, the vast majority of issues that come up are in one way or another tied to the fact that they were tortured in secret for four years. It just contaminates everything.
PFEIFFER: The legacy of torture, from slamming prisoners into walls to locking them in coffin-like boxes, has also added to the massive cost of Guantanamo's court and prison - $6 billion since 2002, despite only one finalized conviction so far. That amount includes tens of billions of dollars in annual legal expenses, including defense experts who specialize in torture.
ALKA PRADHAN: We have experts on the impact of torture. For example, the way it changes your brain, neurologically. How it influences false confessions. How it affects memory.
PFEIFFER: Alka Pradhan is a Guantanamo defense attorney for Ammar al-Baluchi, who's accused of funding the 9/11 hijackers.
PRADHAN: We have experts on sleep deprivation because Mr. al-Baluchi was sleep deprived continuously for two and a half years.
PFEIFFER: The CIA claims that by torturing prisoners, it extracted information from them that helped capture other terrorists, stop future attacks and ultimately save lives. The Senate torture report concluded that was not true and that torturing prisoners yielded no helpful new information. Retired Air Force Colonel Gary Brown is a former top attorney for Guantanamo's military court who's filed a federal whistleblower complaint alleging, quote, "gross financial waste" and "gross mismanagement" there. Brown doubts military court trials could ever happen since so much evidence is tainted by torture. And he says Guantanamo has been a failure at all but one thing.
GARY BROWN: They've been successful at doing something that I would have thought never could have been done, and that is generating more sympathy for the detainees. And they've really turned the detainees into martyrs and victims.
PFEIFFER: Earlier this year, a military court judge set a trial date of January 2021 for the 9/11 case. He says he's determined to finally resolve it. But defense attorneys for the prisoners say that date is wishful at best, since nearly 20 years after the attacks, the aftermath of the torture program and its impact on Guantanamo's legal process continues to play out.
Sacha Pfeiffer, 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.