Crime / JusticeI am James Connell, defense attorney in the Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions for Ammar al Baluchi, the tortured man in Zero Dark Thirty. AMA
Mar 29th 2016 by connell-law • 35 Questions • 131 Points
Hi there! I'm [James Connell](www.imgur.com/kfHr30O), a civilian death penalty defense attorney in the Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions. My client is Ammar al Baluchi, who is best known as the "Ammar" whose torture is depicted in the movie Zero Dark Thirty. I've worked on this case, and only this case, since 2011. Al Baluchi was tortured in black sites for several years before his transfer in 2006 into supermax-level facilities at Guantanamo, where he is still awaiting trial.
There's no shortage of topics here, but to give you all some ideas - Guantanamo detentions, CIA torture, overclassification and secret evidence, political interference in the trial, military bureaucracy, intelligence-gathering, international law, and what it's like defending a massive, incredibly complex case in a brand-new, still mostly-untested legal system that was, frankly, designed for getting a conviction in the very case we're now trying.
Here's a 2014 video Interview I did on torture and classification, and a more recent interview on how I ended up working on the 9/11 trial, and the difficulties of trying to work in the military commissions system. My team Twitter handle is @BaluchiGitmo, and I am a contributor to the @GitmoWatch Twitter account.
I'll answer any questions as best I can, keeping in mind that I can't discuss classified information - which can include things which might already be widely known but were never officially released by the US Government (ie, I can't discuss anything from wikileaks). And I have to preface by stating that I represent only my client, Ammar al-Baluchi, and although I am paid by the US government, I (clearly) don't represent their views or opinions. Nothing I say in this thread is based on classified information.
1540 29 MAR 2016 edit: I am signing off now. Many thanks for all the insightful questions. For more information about the military commissions, follow @GitmoWatch and @CarolRosenberg on Twitter.
a civilian death penalty defense attorney in the Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions.
So, you're acting as a public defender of sorts? How does that even work in the extra-judicial bizarroworld of Gitmo?
How do you deal with the stress and uncertainty on a professional level?
IAAL and do things which, relative to your work, are very low pressure, and yet I am still often very stressed out simply due to the desire to get things right and do the best I can for my client(s). I just can't imagine what it must be like to have such high stakes.
Yes, I am sort of a public defender for the Guantanamo military commissions. Before that I did death penalty cases. About 10 years ago, I figured out that I have almost no control over events. Sometimes people who deserve punishment are released; sometimes people who do not deserve it are imprisoned or executed.
Instead of outcomes tomorrow, I concentrate on doing beautiful work today. That helps manage stress, and increases my professional satisfaction.
Do innocent detainees get any amnesty for losing their life in prison for that long time?
No. The US has never provided any compensation to any detainee, although some other countries have. The government has blocked all lawsuits for compensation in the US under the state secrets doctrine.
Did home country of detainees made any effort in releasing innocents in diplomatic level?
Yes, some countries have fought hard for their release of their detainees. UK is an example.
I don't think there is much of a reason to have military commissions. The US has a perfectly good court-martial system which can try war crimes if federal courts are not available for some reason. The military commissions are a hybrid of federal courts and courts-martial specially designed to convict in this trial.
What did you think while and since watching Zero Dark Thirty?
The first thing I thought was, holy crap, that is Ammar. I am actually glad they made the movie, which provoked an important discussion otherwise missing. We watched it in the courtroom as part of a motion to find out the information the CIA gave to the filmmakers; that was impossibly difficult for Ammar.
If you were to direct a journalist to a good, undiscovered discussion about Gitmo, what would it be?
One item that has received no real attention is the classification of the memories of detainees. The USG maintains that the prisoners' own memories of where they were and who interrogated them is classified. How can the USG classify the thoughts of a person who has not signed an NDA? I would love to see a journalist ask relevant players to explain that one.
What are the risks associated with processing people in a civilian or military system? I could see secret evidence being a problem in the civilian context, as the military would need to protect its sources.
Both civilian and military systems have protections for classified evidence: the Classified Information Procedure Act for federal court, Military Rule of Evidence 505 in courts-martial, and Military Commission Rule of Evidence 505 in the military commissions. It is a balancing between national security and the right to defend oneself. It is easier for my office than some others because we all have security clearances.
Khadr's story is amazingly complex. His family, his childhood arrest, his military commission trial, his long string of attorneys (some from my office), and his transfer to Canada all make his story one of the most complicated GTMO stories. I am glad Michelle Shephard and others are working to tell it.
I'm guessing you'd have an expert regarding the infamous Zimbardo experiment to lay groundwork his initial psychological mindset. Following may be an expert on the psychological effects of torture. Finally you can use someone like Elizabeth Loftus to further state the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, even without torture.
Do you know how much of this case will be on westlaw? Is it a sealed case?
Will you continue to work in this area or go to something less stressful after its all over?
Your thoughts on experts are basically right.
Unfortunately, none of the case is on Westlaw so far. There have been thousands of unclassified pleadings, but they are only available through a public portal at www.mc.mil. The easiest way to know what is going on in the case is to follow @CarolRosenberg or @GitmoWatch, both of which closely track the military commissions.
I don't think about my professional future very much, as we still have a long way to go on this case.