So here I was, flying to the DC area on my second trip to the secret facility to learn more secrets. I had received an email from the government two weeks earlier telling me that a letter had arrived from one of my Guantánamo clients, Mr. Al-Ghizzawi, who is a prisoner at Guantánamo. I refuse to use the Bush Administration's kinder, gentler description of "detainee." Mr. Al-Ghizzawi is not just "detained," he has been held a prisoner for five fucking years without ever being charged with anything. This is a man that was found back in 2004 to be a "non-enemy" by our own military in its kangaroo review process. Yet Al-Ghizzawi remains at Guantánamo, dying a pathetic death of liver disease from hepatitis B with no medical treatment and no help in sight.
The unconscionable procedure that we attorneys are forced to adhere to when letters arrive at the secret facility from our Guantánamo clients is to either have the letter put in our "secret drawer" or to ask that the letter be declassified and sent to us. If we want the letter declassified, we have to ask that the letter be sent to the "privilege team." The "team" reads the attorney/client communication and decides whether or not there are secrets in the letter that need to be kept secret. I always opt for the declassification procedure: the government has already read the letter anyway, so why make the extra trip to DC. Usually, if there are no secrets they will fax the letter a few days later. If there are secrets, the letter gets classified and forever stays in our secret drawer at the secret facility and that is the only place where we can review it. I never had a letter from Mr. Al-Ghizzawi deemed to be classified, I mean what could a "non-enemy" who has been held prisoner for five years have to say that could be classified?
But then it happened. I was worried because I had not heard from Mr. Al-Ghizzawi since my November visit and he always wrote regularly. His health is extremely frail and I feared the worst. So when I received an email from the government saying that there was a letter from Mr. Al-Ghizzawi I was relieved. I immediately sent an email back to the secret people asking them to submit the letter for declassification. A week went by and I heard nothing. I sent another email politely reminding them that they had the letter. Another few days went by and then a fax arrived at my office from the secret place. It was two pages of documents that I had given to Mr. Al-Ghizzawi during our last visit, but no letter and no explanation as to why these two pages had been faxed to me. My paralegal called the secret people to try to figure out what this was about and, after three calls, we were finally told that the letter from Mr. Al-Ghizzawi was classified, but that the two pages that accompanied the letter were not. The two pages had to do with the military tribunal that found Mr. Al-Ghizzawi to NOT be an enemy combatant. In my last visit, I brought those papers with me as I attempted to explain to him the inexplicable... why he is still being held. I let him keep the papers.
So, now my first letter from Mr. Al-Ghizzawi in two months was being held hostage at the secret facility because it had secrets that needed to be kept secret. I knew I had to go and review the letter... I couldn't even imagine what secrets Mr. Al-Ghizzawi could be harboring. On Monday morning I hopped onto a plane to DC. I had my reading materials for the flight, the last two months of In These Times and the last six weeks of The Nation.
As I sat on my delayed flight catching up on my reading, I read an article about the last of John Lennon's FBI documents that had just been released. For those of you who missed it, the FBI released the last ten documents from its file on John Lennon. This was 25 years after professor and author Jon Wiener made his first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and after twenty three years of litigation. The FBI had released most of its file on Lennon in 1997, but held on to ten documents. These were documents that were just too secret for us mortals to handle. Another nine years of litigation passed before the last ten documents were finally released. So what was the big secret in those documents that our government fought for 25 years to keep under wraps? I know you will be shocked to learn that there was absolutely nothing new in those last ten documents.
This was of course all too familiar to me. A few months back, I had taken my first trip to the DC area to view "secret documents" about Mr. Al-Ghizzawi. I was led to believe that the military, who found my client to not be an enemy combatant in its Combat Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), found "new" evidence against Mr. Al-Ghizzawi six weeks later that now showed he was in fact "an enemy." The only problem was that it was "secret" evidence, so I had to fly to the DC area to review it. I did and what I learned was that there was no new evidence. I guess that was the secret, I mean our government does not want to go around blabbing to everyone that they are holding someone prisoner who has been found innocent under its own shoddy procedures (procedures that were drafted and carried out specifically to guarantee a finding that all of the prisoners were "enemy combatants"); instead they classified it as a secret.
As I sat there reading about Lennon's secret FBI documents I pondered Mr. Al-Ghizzawi's secret letter that I was on my way to see. I had thought these secret policies were particular to the massive and unconscionable illegalities of the Bush administration, but the episode with Mr. Lennon's FBI file shows, at least to a certain degree, that this is a long standing governmental policy. Professor Wiener referred to it as "excessive government secrecy" in his recent Nation article. Maybe, but it seems more likely that this is our government's way to make it seem, in Lennon's case, like there was something to justify the illegal spying and intrusion into his life, and in Mr. Al-Ghizzawi's case, to justify his illegal imprisonment. It is a policy of covering up illegal activity by declaring it "secret" and thereby making it seem like something sinister is going on that they just cannot tell us about for our own protection.
When the plane landed in DC I put my reading material back in my bag and I went straight to the secret place. I had an appointment with a special translator who has a security clearance (although Mr. Al-Ghizzawi speaks English and can read some English, he only writes in Arabic). The translator arrived shortly after I did and he suggested that he just read the letter to me. We went into one of the secret offices, closed the door and he read the letter, translating it into English. When he stopped I said "and what else." He looked at me and said "that is all, as you can see this is a very short letter." I shook my head and said... "It doesn't say anything else?" "No," was his reply.
It wasn't his fault and I really don't begrudge the translator but I had to pay for a minimum of three hours of his time and here I was a few minutes later with a letter that held no secrets and I wasn't exactly sure what to do about it.
I asked the translator if he would type up his translation, although at the time I didn't know why. I mean, what was I going to do with a translated letter that I couldn't take with me or talk about? But I asked and he was more than happy to oblige me. When he finished, I asked him if he would translate a short letter back to my client, which he did. I brought the letter for Mr. Al-Ghizzawi over to one of the secret people, to be sent to him if I am lucky (but that is another story). Then I took the secret letter and the translation, put it in my secret drawer and left. I had some other things to do while I was in the DC area (watch a little of the Libby trial for one) and I was spending the night in DC.
That evening, I came up with the idea of resubmitting the letter with the English translation and asking the "team" to redact from the English letter whatever it was that they thought was a secret. I was curious as to what the secret was and I was not allowed to talk about anything in the letter while it was classified. I went back to the secret place on Tuesday, attached the Arabic letter and the English translation with a request that they please review it again and if they still thought there were secrets in the letter, to redact the secrets from the English version and fax to me the redacted English letter.... And then I flew home.
Trust me, you cannot even imagine my disgust two days later when I received the English translation of my client's letter in the fax machine. There were no secrets. There were no redactions.
Now that the letter is no longer a secret, I can tell you some of what was on Mr. Al-Ghizzawi's mind: he told me his health is worse, he is still not getting medical treatment, and he wonders why our government refuses to give him medical treatment. (I cannot answer that question, but I hope the appellate court can); He wonders why he is still being held at Guantánamo and why he is not being sent home, (I can't answer this question either.) Along with the letter, Mr. Al-Ghizzawi sent me those two pages that show he was found not to be an enemy combatant and he asked me if I could have them translated because he must be misunderstanding the documents. (I can have the documents translated, but it will not help him to understand "the process".) He also wonders how he, a very sick man, could pose a threat to a country like America. (I guess I could tell him that we are easily frightened.) The saddest part of the letter is that he informed me that he has been moved to camp 6 and he does not understand why. (Should I tell him we are trying to drive him to insanity?)
If John Lennon's files point us to the fact that our government does not like to own up to its illegal activities, then Mr. Al-Ghizzawi's imprisonment at Guantánamo shows just how far our government will go to cover up its illegal activities. In Lennon's case they would not turn over the documents; and in Mr. Al-Ghizzawi's case they will not turn over the man. Both examples show a government that is more interested in protecting itself than in adhering to our constitution.
I head back to Guantánamo to see Mr. Al-Ghizzawi next week. If anyone has any answers to his questions I would be happy to pass them on.
See my blog at: http://gtmoblog.blogspot.com/