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The agency name that dare not be spoken

July 27, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

The name of the Central Intelligence Agency cannot be spoken in the war crimes trial here.

No records of the agency's interrogations of Salim Ahmed Hamdan can be subpoenaed, and no agent can be called to testify about what he or she learned from Osama bin Laden's former driver.

When defense attorney Harry H. Schneider Jr. attempted to demonstrate how many interrogations Hamdan had undergone in the months after his November 2001 arrest -- at least 40 -- he couldn't list the CIA along with more than a dozen other agencies including the Secret Service and what was then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The prohibition against naming the CIA came in a "protective order" issued by the court at the government's request. The tribunal's deputy chief prosecutor, Army Col. Bruce A. Pagel, couldn't say which agency sought the shield or what arguments were made to justify it.

"It's a bit absurd to go through an entire trial pretending that the CIA doesn't exist," said Matt Pollard, a legal advisor for Amnesty International here to monitor the proceedings.

"The CIA plays a role with the detainees at Guantanamo Bay that has never been fully acknowledged, and the bottom line is that national security should never be claimed against any evidence of torture or human-rights violations."

Not loving it

Former FBI Al Qaeda expert Ali Soufan brought Hamdan Filet-O-Fish sandwiches from McDonald's to get on the prisoner's good side.

Fellow agent George M. Crouch Jr. discovered that Hamdan had an affinity for Mickey D fries and was more forthcoming when his junk-food jones was satisfied.

But the 38-year-old Yemeni soon learned what regular visitors to the Golden Arches have known for decades: You've got to get 'em while they're hot.

Crouch told the court how he tried to bring in an order from the McDonald's on the Navy base, which is no more than a 10-minute drive from the interrogation site. But on that July day in 2002, he was blocked from entering for more than an hour by military guards.

"Mr. Hamdan even appreciated that McDonald's fries are not good cold," Crouch told the court, eliciting laughter from the judge and jurors.

Brief briefings

To have an impressive backdrop for the government's daily spin on the tribunal proceedings, a Pentagon engineering unit built and furnished a press briefing room inside the abandoned hangar that houses journalists covering the Hamdan trial.

At a cost of nearly $50,000, the news-conference room at Camp Justice -- as the Expeditionary Legal Complex is known -- has one serious problem: You can't hear a thing when the giant air conditioner is turned on, and you can't breathe when it isn't.

The roaring AC is turned off just seconds before the Pentagon public affairs officers approach the podium in front of the Stars and Stripes and the five flags of the uniformed services.

In southern Cuba's scorching summer temperatures, it's a matter of minutes before brows start beading with sweat and journalists start tugging at their collars. The stifling heat has made the media opportunities uncharacteristically brief.

Proof of life

In a rare bow to Geneva Convention prisoner-of-war protections, the tribunal gives Hamdan the right to approve the courtroom sketch artist's renderings of the defendant.

The Geneva Convention prohibits the "parading" of POWs, and although the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to classify the Guantanamo detainees as POWs, officials have used the parading ban to prevent images of the detainees from being made public.

Sketch artist Janet Hamlin showed her first drawing to the defendant after the opening day of testimony Tuesday. It drew a big smile and a double thumbs-up from Hamdan.

His pleasure at being depicted might have reflected Hamdan's appreciation of a rare chance to let his family in Yemen get a glimpse of him after a nearly seven-year absence.

Hamdan has a fourth-grade education and has learned little English during his detention -- all but a few months of it in solitary cells.

Guards have taught their charges hand signals common in the United States, like the thumbs-up, to aid communication.

They asked for it

Complying with the letter, if not the spirit, of a judge's months-old order to turn over records of Hamdan's six-year detention here to defense lawyers, the prosecution delivered more than 500 pages of evidence 12 hours before his trial began Monday.

"It was a document dump," said the tribunal's deputy chief of defense, Michael Berrigan. Many pages in the jumble lacked dates or letterhead, and the page sequence didn't correspond to the discovery list issued by the judge, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred.

To sort through the mess, the tribunal defense chief, Army Col. Steve David, conscripted seven other detainees' defense lawyers -- on the base to consult with their clients -- to spend the night combing the documents for information important to Hamdan's case.

One nugget was raised in court Friday: Civilian defense lawyer Joseph McMillan grilled FBI agents about a practice outlined in a secret document to "exploit the sense of disorientation" common among newly arrived detainees.

"At the end of the day, there's only one government," Berrigan said of the prosecution's excuse that other agencies had held up compliance with Allred's discovery order.

"The bottom line is that the defense is not equipped, under the rules we have to operate under, to present an adequate defense."

--

carol.williams@latimes.com

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