WASHINGTON — A U.S. military officer warned Pentagon officials that an American detainee was being driven nearly insane by months of punishing isolation and sensory deprivation in a U.S. military brig, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press.
The documents shed new light on how two American citizens and a legal U.S. resident were treated in military jails inside the United States. The military was ordered to treat the Americans the same way as prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the documents show.
The men were interrogated by the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, repeatedly denied access to attorneys and mail from home, and allowed no contact with anyone other than guards and their interrogators. They were deprived of natural light for months. For years, they were forbidden even minor distractions such as a soccer ball or a dictionary.
"I will continue to do what I can to help this individual maintain his sanity, but in my opinion we're working with borrowed time," an unidentified Navy brig official wrote of prisoner Yaser Esam Hamdi in 2002. "I would like to have some form of an incentive program in place to reward him for his continued good behavior, but more so, to keep him from whacking out on me."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 10, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Detainees: An article in Wednesday's Section A about harsh treatment of American detainees in U.S. military brigs said documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act provided evidence that the Bush Administration had violated the 5th Amendment's protections against cruel treatment. In fact, it is the 8th Amendment that bars cruel and unusual treatment.
Yale Law School's Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic received the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by attorneys Jonathan Freiman and Tahlia Townsend, who represent another detainee, Jose Padilla. The Lowenstein group and the American Civil Liberties Union said the papers were evidence that the Bush administration violated the 5th Amendment's protections against cruel treatment.
The 91 pages of e-mails and documents produced by U.S. Fleet Forces Command, which runs the military brigs in Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C., detail daily decisions made about the treatment of Hamdi and Padilla, then both American citizens, and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a legal resident. All were designated as by the White House as "illegal enemy combatants."
The Bush administration ordered the men to be held in military jails as "enemy combatants" for years of interrogations without criminal charges, which would not have been allowed in civilian jails.
The administration created Guantanamo specifically to avoid allowing detainees constitutional rights. Administration lawyers contended the Constitution did not apply outside the country.
"These documents are the first clear confirmation of what we've suspected all along, that the brig was run as a prison beyond the law. There was an effort to create a Gitmo inside the United States," Jonathan Hafetz of the ACLU's National Security Project in New York said, using the slang word for the U.S. naval facility in Cuba.
The paperwork shows uniformed officials at the military brigs growing increasingly uncomfortable and then alarmed that they were being directed to handle their prisoners under Guantanamo rules.
The authors and recipients of the e-mails are censored from the documents. They appear to be directed to either military or Pentagon legal counsel and policy offices.
An officer was still raising alarms about Hamdi's mental state after 14 months behind bars with no contact with lawyers, family or other prisoners.
"I told him the last thing that I wanted to have happen was to send him anywhere from here as a 'basket case,' of use to no one, to include himself," the officer wrote in an e-mail to undisclosed government officials in June 2003. "I fear the rubber band is nearing its breaking point here and not totally confident I can keep his head in the game much longer."
Scores of pages of once-secret legal opinions regarding detainee rights and treatment have been released under the Freedom of Information Act. At least two apparently crucial memos about enemy combatant treatment inside the U.S. have yet to be made public.
Hamdi eventually was released to Saudi Arabia on condition that he renounce his American citizenship.
Padilla, arrested in 2002 on suspicion of plotting to set off a "dirty" radioactive bomb in the U.S. and held as an enemy combatant, was tried on different charges in civilian court. He was convicted of supporting terrorism in Kosovo, Bosnia and Chechnya.
Al-Marri, arrested in 2001 as a material witness to the 9/11 attacks, remains in a military brig. He is appealing his detention to the Supreme Court.