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Judge: Detainee photos could be exploited if released

A Manhattan federal judge ruled Friday that the government doesn't have to release photos of a detainee who was subjected to abusive interrogation at Guantánamo because enemies might exploit the images and endanger U.S. troops.

The Freedom of Information Act suit sought pictures of the man authorities believe would have been the 20th hijacker on 9/11, Mohammed al-Qahtani, who suffered a breakdown after treatment that included being forced to perform dog tricks on a leash.

Although the government previously released documents about his treatment, U.S. District Judge Naomi Buchwald wrote, "The written record of torture may make it all the more likely that enemy forces would use al-Qahtani's image against the United States' interests."

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which argued that the photographic record of al-Qahtani's detention had been improperly withheld by the FBI, CIA and Department of Defense.

Al-Qahtani was turned away at the U.S. border before Sept. 11, 2001, which officials believe forced the plotters to carry out their terror attacks with just 19 hijackers. He was later captured in Pakistan and transferred to Guantánamo.

Official reports, Buchwald said, revealed that his questioning involved 20-hour interrogations, use of stress positions, forcing him to strip naked in front of a female, and threatening him with a snarling dog.

Buchwald, who based her decision in part on secret filings about the pictures and videos, said there was "no evidence" that the material showed illegal conduct or documented abuse, and the FBI had assured her that its videotapes contained no such content.

Nonetheless, government officials argued that U.S. enemies could use the materials "out of context" to "incite" anger against America by doctoring pictures, splicing video and staging audio overdubs.

The government also argued that the pictures should be kept hidden so that potential informants would not worry that the government couldn't keep secrets, and to protect al-Qahtani's privacy interests -- which the judge said he was probably no longer competent to waive.

Buchwald said judges should not "second-guess the predictive judgments made by the government's intelligence agencies."

Shayana Kadidal, a lawyer for the center, said an appeal was likely.

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