Obama urged to declassify CIA detention program

Lawyers for the five accused 9/11 plotters urged President Barack Obama on Friday to declassify details of the CIA's secret interrogation program in prisons where their clients were allegedly tortured.

In a letter to the president, defense lawyers in the war crimes proceedings leading up to an expected trial for the 2001 attacks said the government was using secrecy to cover up torture after their clients were caught, held and interrogated.

They also accused the Obama administration of "suppressing evidence" and said the "self-serving" restrictions prevented them from properly making their case in legal proceedings against their clients, who face the death penalty if convicted of the attacks on US soil.

Meanwhile, Guantanamo's chief prosecutor proposed a January 2015 start date to begin what has been dubbed "the trial of the century."

But defense lawyers said they lacked the necessary elements for a fair trial, and suggested it was too early to set a date.

"This process is completely unfair," said civilian lawyer James Harrington, who is representing Ramzi Binalshibh. "It's going to be a long time."

In their letter, the 14 lawyers stressed that "the classification of the RDI (rendition, detention and interrogation) program is suppressing evidence, suppressing the truth, and ultimately will suppress any real justice," in violation of US law and of Washington's international obligations.

"The existing classification restrictions surrounding the RDI program only facilitate further concealment of war crimes committed by agents of our government," the lawyers wrote.

"These restrictions further violate our domestic commitment under the (United Nations) Convention Against Torture and the universal prohibition against silencing victims of torture."

The letter was signed by nine US military and five civilian lawyers paid by the Pentagon to defend the five men accused of plotting the hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Following their detentions, in 2002 and 2003, the five suspects spent three years in secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons abroad where they were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding that is widely considered torture.

The self-proclaimed mastermind of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was waterboarded 183 times, according to US Justice Department memos.

His nephew, Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, suffered a head injury during his detention, according to a medical report revealed this week, and lawyers for two more defendants say their clients were also physically abused by the CIA.

"Fear of public embarrassment and the desire to conceal war crimes are driving the classification of information from the RDI program," the lawyers said in their letter.

"These restrictions prevent these capital trials from meeting the most basic standards of fairness."

During pre-trial hearings this week at the high security US naval facility in Cuba, where the detainees have been held since 2006, the lawyers also invoked the UN Convention Against Torture to request that their clients be spared a possible death penalty sentence.

Detainees cannot file complaints under the convention, their lawyers said, because their treatment in US detention was a classified matter.

"Evidence of war crimes must not be classified," Commander Walter Ruiz, lawyer for Saudi defendant Mustapha al-Hawsawi, wrote in a statement accompanying the letter.

"For decades now, the United States, by executive order has banned the use of classification rules to conceal violations of law."

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1984.

Signed by the United States in 1988 and ratified by the Senate in 1994, it "is part of United States law," Ruiz noted.