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Catch-22 in the 21st Century

Government censors are making like Joseph Heller’s character Yossarian and blacking out random information in letters from Guantánamo that has nothing to do with “national security”

BY H. Candace Gorman

I was astonished that the government classified al-Ghizzawi's account of the torture he had experienced. If you like games, you would love being an attorney fighting this government.

When I visited my client Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi at Guantánamo on Sept. 25 and 26, he brought with him two letters that he had been working on since summer. The letters, written in Arabic, were six pages and one page in length. The six-page letter described the torture he had endured since bounty hunters picked him up in Afghanistan in late 2001. The one-page letter contained instructions upon his death. Al-Ghizzawi wanted to spend our meeting going over the letters so that if they got “lost” in the mail, the information would be recorded in my notes.

We spent most of our first of two meeting days with al-Ghizzawi reading his letters to me and elaborating or explaining as necessary, with me taking notes. At the end of our two-day visit I had 19 pages and, as required, I submitted my notes to the government. Al-Ghizzawi’s letters were handed to the guards. Government censors would read both before sending them to me.

On Oct. 11, I received al-Ghizzawi’s one-page letter, but only three pages of the six-page letter, along with a memo from the government explaining that the other three pages were being held at the “secret place”–the office the government set up for the attorneys reviewing classified information. I was astonished that the government classified al-Ghizzawi’s account of the torture he had experienced. The withheld pages primarily outlined what happened to al-Ghizzawi in American hands before arriving at Guantánamo. (In the spring of this year my other client, Razak Ali gave me a similar blow-by-blow, complete with flight information and none of those notes were classified.)

It would be a month before I received my notes back from the government sans two pages that were declared classified. Even before I reviewed my notes I knew that some of the information marked classified in al-Ghizzawi’s letter would not be marked classified in my notes. But it wasn’t until a trip to the secret place near Washington, D.C. on Nov. 1 to review my two pages of notes, line-by-line, that I confirmed this.

If you like games, you would love being an attorney fighting this government. After checking in at the secret place and having my secret drawer opened by the nice young man, I looked for an open office. The dingy government facility is quite large (and empty) with several open work stations and a few private offices. It is always eerily quiet, whether occupied by many attorneys (as on that day) or just me. It is as if everyone is afraid to speak above a whisper, despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact) that the courts have designated this as a spot where Guantánamo attorneys can openly discuss “the secrets.” I settled into one of the private spaces and loaded my government issued disk drive into a “secure computer.” I typed each sentences on a separate sheet of paper to determine exactly which facts the government was trying to keep out of the public eye. As I sat there typing these sentences one by one, I tried to guess which were hush-hush.

Was it: “They beat him if he made any sound or if he complained about how much it hurt.”

Or perhaps: “Had several body cavity searches with crowds around him laughing.”

Or maybe: “They took pictures of him naked. Men and women were watching him and laughing.”

I was certain this would be classified: “They were brought out to the runway naked. … While they were standing on the runway they were made to sit like a dog on all fours–pictures were taken–they were made to pose with their heads all held a certain way with the goggles on.”

I was wrong. None of the above sentences were classified. On Nov. 5, I received 14 of the 20 pages back marked unclassified. Predictably, the six sentences the government continued to withhold had been declassified in al-Ghizzawi’s letter to me or in notes from earlier visits.

There is nothing to be gained by trying to figure out why the government seemingly random censors information that has nothing to do with “national security.” Ironically, information it was attempting to censor was less incriminating than the above sentences that it let pass.

In my mind’s eye I pictured Yossarian, the main character in Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22, who, while hospitalized, was required by the military to read and censor enlisted men’s letters home. Yossarian quickly bored of the job and began randomly blacking out words, starting with adverbs and adjectives, and then moving on to the entire letter, just leaving the signature.

Whether it is due to boredom, or something more sinister, the full story of al-Ghizzawi’s torture is now unclassified.

H. Candace Gorman is a civil rights attorney in Chicago. She blogs regularly about legal issues surrounding Guantanamo detainees at The Guantanamo Blog.

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