A.C.L.U. Lawyers Mine Torture Documents for Truth

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WASHINGTON — In the spring of 2003, long before Abu Ghraib or secret prisons became part of the American vocabulary, a pair of recently hired lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union noticed a handful of news reports about allegations of abuse of prisoners in American custody.

The lawyers, Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh, wondered: Was there a broader pattern of abuse, and could a Freedom of Information Act request uncover it? Some of their colleagues, more experienced with the frustrations of such document demands, were skeptical. One made a tongue-in-cheek offer of $1 for every page they turned up.

Six years later, the detention document request and subsequent lawsuit are among the most successful in the history of public disclosure, with 130,000 pages of previously secret documents released to date and the prospect of more.

The case has produced revelation after revelation: battles between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the military over the treatment of detainees at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp; autopsy reports on prisoners who died in custody in Afghanistan and Iraq; the Justice Department’s long-secret memorandums justifying harsh interrogation methods; and day-by-day descriptions of what happened inside the Central Intelligence Agency’s overseas prisons...

... The Freedom of Information Act has a mixed reputation with advocates, journalists and companies who use it regularly. It can be notoriously slow to generate results, and in the case of classified documents — the vast majority of the records at issue in the A.C.L.U. case — the pages often come back with all or most of the content blacked out.

Agencies sometimes do not take a case seriously until the requestor takes the government to court. The A.C.L.U.’s initial October 2003 request for documents on the treatment of prisoners produced a single document — an innocuous set of State Department “talking points” — before the organization filed suit in June 2004, joined by the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans for Peace.

Documents began to flow only after September 2004, when Judge Hellerstein issued a ruling criticizing the “glacial pace” of the government’s response and added, “If the documents are more of an embarrassment than a secret, the public should know of our government’s treatment of individuals captured and held abroad.”

Mr. Jaffer, 37, a Canadian-born lawyer who left a lucrative practice with a private firm to join the A.C.L.U., said, “Maybe our inexperience was a good thing, because we actually thought we might get something.”

Ms. Singh, 40, the daughter of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, graduated from Yale Law School, is married to an American and holds dual Indian and American citizenship.

Ms. Singh recalls being teased by a senior colleague in 2003 who asked, “ ‘Are you clearing out shelf space for all the documents you’ll get?’ ” The joke backfired, as reams of paper began to arrive. The organization eventually had to create a new computer system to handle the large electronic database, and in 2007 the two lawyers published a book-length collection of the documents obtained by then, called “Administration of Torture.”

The largest share of documents (2,814) have come from the Defense Department, the A.C.L.U. said, followed by the State Department (998), the F.B.I. (872), other units in the Justice Department (145) and the C.I.A. (49)...

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