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Supreme Court rejects Guantánamo prisoner's request to interview torturers

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Supreme Court rejects Guantánamo prisoner's request to interview torturers
The Supreme Court voted 7-2 against Abu Zubaydah's request to interview two former CIA contractors who tortured him. File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/UPI | License Photo

March 3 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked a Guantánamo Bay prisoner from interviewing two of the architects of the CIA's torture program, both of whom waterboarded the accused Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist.

Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi citizen, sought to talk to the two CIA contractors -- James Mitchell and John Jessen -- about their torture techniques as part of a criminal case in Poland. Mitchell and Jessen waterboarded Zubaydah more than 80 times at a so-called black site in Poland.

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Zubaydah wants information from the two former contractors as part of a criminal case in Poland in which he's accusing Polish authorities of being involved in unlawfully detaining and torturing him.

The Supreme Court ruled against Zubaydah's request, saying the state secrets privilege protects the information he seeks from becoming public.

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"Given Mitchell and Jessen's central role in the relevant events, we believe that their confirmation (or denial) of the information Zubaydah seeks would be tantamount to a disclosure from the CIA itself," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the ruling.

"It stands to reason that a former CIA insider's confirmation of confidential cooperation between the CIA and a foreign intelligence service could damage the CIA's clandestine relationships with foreign authorities."

The high court voted 7-2 against Zubaydah, and though Justice Elana Kagan voted with the majority, she was against dismissing the case.

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Zubaydah's torture in Poland and the existence of CIA black sites are public knowledge, and Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying there's no longer any secrecy about the torture site.

"There comes a point where we should not be ignorant as judges of what we know to be true as citizens," Gorsuch wrote. "Ending this suit may shield the government from some further modest measure of embarrassment. But respectfully, we should not pretend it will safeguard any secret."

Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said his country provided "a quiet location" for the CIA. His comments came after a U.S. Senate report in 2014 noted prisoners in the Stare Kiejkuty prison, at a former military base, were victims of various torture methods.

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Mitchell testified in a U.S. military courtroom in 2000 that he believed the CIA's torture techniques came close to breaking the law, specifically citing the treatment of Zubaydah. He said he and other contract psychologists wanted to stop the torture, but intelligence officials pressed them to continue.

He testified that he thought they had forced Zubaydah, who agreed to cooperate, to reveal all the information he had and helped draft a message to the CIA headquarters informing them "the intensity of the pressure applied to him thus far approaches the legal limit" and that Zubaydah's mental state was deteriorating.

Mitchell said the CIA urged them to continue the torture program because Zubaydah still may have been withholding information about an imminent U.S. attack, so he agreed to waterboard him one more time, but requested a senior CIA official be present.

"If you think you want us to waterboard him, then you're going to witness it. We're going to do it one more time and then never again," he said.

The CIA paid Mitchell and his partner Bruce Jessen more than $80 million to develop the torture program for suspected terrorists that included waterboarding, stress positions and mock burials, among other techniques.

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The pair of psychologists said the methods were intended to be more uncomfortable than painful, but said some interrogations got out of control. They also denied responsibility for other interrogators who used the techniques in abusive and unauthorized ways.

Mitchell said he sought to sever his ties to the program, but officials told him he would bear responsibility if more people in the United States died in another terrorist attack, and that their replacement may not share the same concerns about the program.

Zubaydah was arrested in 2002 in Pakistan on suspicion of being a senior lieutenant of Osama bin Laden's and involved in al-Qaida's planning of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Daniel Uria contributed to this report.

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