Prosecutors have discovered secret videos of guards forcibly removing the accused mastermind of the bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole from his cell at Guantánamo Bay around the time federal agents claim he voluntarily confessed to his role in the Qaeda plot, the lead prosecutor told the trial judge on Wednesday.
The surprise disclosure could cause more delays in Guantánamo’s longest-running death-penalty case, which has been in pretrial proceedings since 2011. The judge is retiring from the Army and has scheduled closing arguments for next week on the question of whether to allow 2007 statements by the defendant, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, at his eventual trial.
But the videotapes have not been turned over to either the judge or defense lawyers. Instead, a prosecutor, Michael J. O’Sullivan, said the tapes were so sensitive that government agents were preparing them for screenings in classified settings — after certain information was apparently obscured.
Agents have testified that in January 2007 Mr. Nashiri boasted of his role in the Cole attack, which killed 17 sailors off Yemen in October 2000. But defense lawyers have long argued that he told federal agents what he thought they wanted to hear because he had earlier been tortured.
On Wednesday, Mr. O’Sullivan said government officials screened the first of up to 17 videos this week for defense lawyers after some sort of secret processing he would not describe in open court. At least some of them showed Mr. Nashiri being forced out of his cell in late 2006 and early 2007, around the time of his interrogations, Mr. O’Sullivan said.
The technique has typically been carried out at the Guantánamo prison by seven specially trained guards in black riot gear, their faces obscured, who put a defiant prisoner face down on the ground and then in restraints. In 2017, the prison published photos of soldiers training on how to do it.
Annie W. Morgan, one of Mr. Nashiri’s lawyers, said the only video the defense lawyers have been allowed to see showed guards cutting shackles off the prisoner’s ankles eight days before his 2007 interrogations, but none of him being shackled and removed from his cell.
Defense lawyers originally asked for videos of the prisoner’s treatment in Camp 7 in 2011, when he was charged, the judge said in a ruling last year. Prosecutors had replied that there were none.
Then, more than a year ago, Mr. Nashiri’s lawyers spotted an entry in a prison logbook describing how guards cut shackles off the prisoner’s ankles because a key had broken off inside, and that a special unit of military cameramen had been called. They then asked prosecutors for any video of the episode.
On June 16, Ms. Morgan said, the prosecution disclosed the existence of more than a dozen videos, including the one showing the ankle shackles being removed.
In looking for a video of that encounter, prosecutors apparently found the others.
Ms. Morgan said Guantánamo prison records in 2006-7 showed that Mr. Nashiri was “subjected to an increasing number” of forced removals from his cell just before his interrogations. She called it “a deliberate attempt to remind him of the harsh treatment he received in C.I.A. black sites and what would happen if he did not cooperate.”
In the black sites, agency employees waterboarded him, confined him to a wooden box, threatened him with death and had him shackled in painful positions to gain his cooperation. He was kept in isolation and at times abused rectally.
While Mr. Nashiri was in Thailand in 2002, the C.I.A. made videotapes depicting the treatment of him and another prisoner known as Abu Zubaydah, but then destroyed them three years later. In place of that destroyed evidence, the videos of Mr. Nashiri at Guantánamo’s Camp 7 prison in 2006 and 2007 “will give at least a glimpse into that behavior,” Ms. Morgan said.
The judge asked the prosecutor for the national security justification for withholding copies of the tapes from the judiciary and the defense, and suggested in open court that it was perhaps the need to protect “tactics.”
Mr. O’Sullivan responded: “It’s been cleared for display only. That’s about all I can tell you at this point.”
Once the videos were processed, he said, prosecutors would offer classified screenings on a rolling basis, perhaps beginning as early as next week.