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Military concerned for detainees' sanity, records show

  • Story Highlights
  • Records: Official said detainee Yaser Hamdi's sanity was faltering
  • Military officer requested help keeping prisoner from "whacking out" on him
  • Pentagon statement stresses that all detainees are treated "humanely"
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By Carol Cratty
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Newly released documents show that military personnel watching over at least two American citizens held in U.S. Navy brigs feared that the isolation and austere conditions were threatening detainees' sanity.

Records show that military personnel feared for the sanity of detainees in U.S. Navy brigs.

Records show that military personnel feared for the sanity of detainees in U.S. Navy brigs.

Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request quote an unnamed brig official writing about detainee Yaser Hamdi in June 2002.

"I will continue to do what I can to help this individual maintain his sanity, but in my opinion, we're working with borrowed time," he wrote.

The recipient of the e-mail also is unidentified.

The communication is one of several in which brig personnel expressed worries to superiors about the mental state of Hamdi, a dual Saudi/U.S. citizen who was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2001.

Another e-mail about Hamdi written six months later, in December 2002, shows an unidentified military person appealing to higher-ups to be able to provide Hamdi with games and tapes to help him pass the time during confinement as a means to steady his mental state.

"I would like to have some form of an incentive program in place to reward him for his continued good behavior, but more so, to keep him from whacking [sic] out on me."

A June 2003 e-mail reports that Hamdi "feels as if he has been forgotten."

"The last thing I wanted to have happen was to send him anywhere from here as a 'Basket Case,' of use to no one," the author of the message wrote. "I fear the rubber band is nearing its breaking point here and not totally confident I can keep his head in the game much longer."

The Pentagon would not discuss the specifics of the newly released documents. But a spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeff Gordon, issued a brief statement: "The Department of Defense policy is clear: We treat all detainees humanely. The United States operates safe, humane and professional detention operations for unlawful enemy combatants at war with this country."

After his capture in 2001, Hamdi was sent to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Once officials discovered that he was born in the United States, he was transferred to the United States and held in solitary confinement in Naval brigs in Norfolk, Virginia, and then in Charleston, South Carolina.

Hamdi was never charged with breaking any laws, and the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the United States could not hold him indefinitely without bringing charges. Hamdi was allowed to return to Saudi Arabia, and he relinquished his U.S. citizenship.

The e-mails reveal that brig personnel had been instructed to treat Hamdi and later two other enemy combatants held in the United States in a manner similar to hundreds of prisoners detained by the military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Attorneys for a second detainee, Jose Padilla, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the documents about the treatment of the detainees at the military brigs. Yale Law School's Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union obtained the 91 pages of material, which the ACLU released to the public.

Jonathan Freiman, one of the Padilla attorneys, said the government's own documents provide damaging information about how his client and the other enemy combatants were treated in U.S. facilities.

"He was treated abysmally and unconstitutionally for years," he said. "It's a clear violation of the Fifth Amendment," which guarantees the right to due process.

Another Padilla lawyer, Tahlia Townsend, said the documents show that military staff at the brig were told to keep Padilla and the others "in conditions to soften them up for interrogation."

The lawyers are concerned that they have yet to receive documents about Padilla's treatment from 2002 to 2004, which they contend could provide more evidence about how he was treated. Most of the material just released concerns Hamdi.

The ACLU issued a statement saying brig officials "doubted the wisdom of applying Guantanamo rules on American soil" but had to follow orders from the Pentagon.

The United States eventually brought charges against Padilla, and he was convicted in 2007 of providing material support for terrorism in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya.

A third detainee remains in custody at the brig in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ali al-Marri is a native of Qatar and was a legal U.S. resident when he was arrested in Illinois in 2001. Al-Marri was transferred from civilian to military custody in 2003. U.S. officials suspected that al-Marri was a member of an al Qaeda sleeper cell, but no terrorism charges were filed against him.

Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer for al-Marri, is appealing his client's detention to the Supreme Court. Hafetz also works for the ACLU.

When CNN asked for his reaction to the e-mails, Hafetz replied, "I was surprised you saw the concern and discomfort so early on by military officials" at the brigs.

Hafetz said those at the brig seemed sympathetic to the plight of the enemy combatants in their care but were forced to follow orders.

The new documents also contain e-mails about his client. One from April 2007 talks about how al-Marri had not been able to communicate with his wife and five children, who had gone back to Saudi Arabia to live.

"I believe that it is in Mr. al-Marri's and our best interest for him to be able to communicate in some way with his family," said the unidentified brig official. "Five years is too long."

Hafetz said that conditions began to improve a bit for his client after he filed suit in 2005 but that he still doesn't have contact with other detainees at the brig. "The fundamental problem remains: He's in virtual isolation. More than 1,800 days in isolation."

"His mental state has been deteriorating," Hafetz said. "You're alone with no idea when confinement will end."

Hafetz said al-Marri is now allowed two phone calls a year with his family. He can get mail, but the lawyer said it takes two to four months to get to his client, because everything is sent first to the military facility in Guantanamo Bay, where it must be cleared.

All About U.S. Armed Forces ActivitiesYaser HamdiGuantanamo Bay

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