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‘Extraordinary’ Guantanamo Documents Shed New Light on Detainees

April 25, 2011 at 4:46 PM EST
Hundreds of newly released classified documents revealed details on hundreds of men who have been held -- and are being held -- at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Jeffrey Brown discusses the leak, WikiLeaks' involvement and what was revealed in the files with The New York Times' Charlie Savage and NPR's Tom Gjelten.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Hundreds of newly released classified documents have opened a rare window on the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The files were leaked to the whistle-blowing Web site WikiLeaks, which in turn offered them to several news organizations.

Others, including the New York Times and the Guardian newspapers, obtained the documents separately. The files were written by military intelligence officials between February 2002 and January 2009 and offered details about more than 750 prisoners, including 172 still being held.

Documents known as detainee assessment briefs contained evidence gathered about and from prisoners and evaluations by analysts. They included assignment of a risk category for each detainee: high, medium or low.

One revelation, the 600 or so prisoners released or transferred to other countries included 160 who were at one time considered high-risk. And The New York Times identified 42 former detainees who later engaged in militant activity.

One of those is Said Mohammed Alam Shah, a 24-year-old Afghan captured in 2001. After his transfer back to Afghanistan in 2004, he revealed himself to be Abdullah Mehsud, a Pakistan-born militant who then began plotting attacks.

At the same time, however, other files detailed the cases of inmates who had been picked up by mistake, including 89-year-old Mohammed Sadiq, captured in 2002 and later found to be suffering from dementia.

One former detainee once assessed as a probable member of al-Qaida is today a leader among the rebels fighting to oust Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. There are also new details on well-known detainees, including the self-professed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The documents say he ordered former Baltimore resident Majid Khan to carry out a martyrdom attack against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to test Khan’s willingness to — quote — “die for the cause.” The attack didn’t go forward.

In 2009, after these files were written, the Obama administration reassessed all 240 prisoners then held at Guantanamo. The administration has now condemned the publication of the classified documents.

And now to two reporters who’ve read and written on the documents: Charlie Savage of The New York Times, Tom Gjelten of NPR.

Charlie Savage, I will start with you.

Give us a general overview first. What jumped out at you as new and important here?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: Well, you know, it’s just an extraordinary pile of documents for someone who has been covering these issues for many years.

We knew the broad allegations of the government’s contentions against the various men that had been brought to Guantanamo over the past decade. What these documents showed us why was why they thought that, how strong or in some cases how weak the evidence was against them. It was — it laid bare the sources of their claims, which, in many cases, turned out to be only testimony about such men by other detainees at Guantanamo.

The prison is revealed to be an insular nest of mutual informants all trying to tell their own story, curry favors, or get out of there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Tom Gjelten, much of that sorting of information went into devising the so-called risk assessment. Tell us more about what we learn about that.

TOM GJELTEN, National Public Radio: Well, Jeff, that assessment actually put the detainees in three categories, according to how much of a threat they were expected to pose to the United States and its allies if released, high, medium, or low.

And what’s interesting, as you said in the intro, is how many of those detainees who were categorized, who were seen as likely to pose a threat to the United States were nevertheless released anyway. It’s almost as if that was not a relevant consideration in the decision of whether they should be released or transferred to another country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do we learn anything about why, why they were released then?

TOM GJELTEN: Well, if you look through the documents, what you see is that the decisions on whether to transfer or release detainees were not so much based on individual considerations, but on almost geopolitical considerations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Geopolitical.

TOM GJELTEN: Geopolitical. Almost all the detainees from Afghanistan were returned to Afghanistan. Almost all the detainees from Saudi Arabia were returned to Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, those decisions were based on commitments that the United States made to those governments or commitments it wanted to keep with those governments.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Charlie Savage, you were telling us about these cases of detainees providing information about other — about other prisoners, but I gather that too raised all kinds of questions about reliability. Can you give us — give us an example or two?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Certainly.

Well, I mean, one of the things that’s interesting about this whole process is that, because of the habeas corpus cases that some detainees have been bringing in court, we have had a series of judicial rulings by Article three judges and, in some cases, military judges who have looked at the government’s evidence and ruled that it’s — it’s not good and the detainees needed to be let go.

In some cases, there were veiled, censored references to certain witnesses against prisoners having been unreliable. But it was so censored, you had no idea what they were talking about. With these files, you can see that a small number of detainees are in some cases providing an enormous amount of information about the rest of their colleagues, or at least their fellow prisoners.

Many aren’t talking at all. A few are talking prolifically. And in some cases, those detainees also have mental health problems or have been otherwise revealed to be maybe exaggerators at best.

And so to see the specifics that here’s one person who has been held for many years on the basis of, say, four people, and now you see that each of those four people had credibility problems, it comes — brings into sharp focus the incredibly difficult situation that the military analysts at Guantanamo found themselves in, in trying to piece together fragmentary and often contradictory or ambivalent information to decide what was true about what someone had done before they were captured and just how risky it would be to release them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what would you add to that, Tom? I read of one fellow who I guess gave so much information at a certain point, they said, this is — he is exaggerating. It’s too much. It’s impossible, right?

TOM GJELTEN: Yes. It was a case — and he wasn’t a detainee who had been subjected to torture. In fact, it was almost the opposite. He had been rewarded for his testimony, for his informing on his fellow detainees. And he just did it and did it and did it, to the point that they actually basically had to put an asterisk next to his reports, saying that anything he said needed to be verified.

There’s one other point that I think is worth keeping in mind here. You know, you mentioned the number of detainees who have gone back to the fight, so to speak, about 42, according to the investigation that we in The New York Times did.

Well, we looked at who had gone back to the fight. And, as it turns out, those ratings of how likely a detainee was to pose a threat to the United States was almost irrelevant. The high-risk detainees who went back to the — were no more likely to go back to the fight than the medium- or low-risk detainees, which calls into question really the reliability of the intelligence that went into those assessments.

It’s almost as if they really were not sure whether the detainees were all that risky or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you another — I will start with you on this, because you mentioned the word torture just a minute ago. One thing I guess we do not learn a lot about here are interrogation — the interrogation techniques. I mean, they’re mentioned, but not in great detail, right?

TOM GJELTEN: No. As Charlie said, what you really need to do to analyze these documents properly is read them alongside the — the transcripts of the combatant status review tribunals and the habeas corpus petitions, because that’s where you see the allegations or the claims of torture.

And then, when you sort of line them up, that gives you a little better sense of which accusations are well-founded and which have been tainted by perhaps information that was acquired under — under questionable conditions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Charlie, there’s a whole lot to go into here, but what — just a couple — one thing that jumped out at me was foreign officials were allowed to come in and interrogate prisoners, people from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia. Tell us, what was that about?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, it’s absolutely — of course, we knew this to some extent. We see in greater detail now that delegations of intelligence agents from other countries, including some that we might find unsavory, were being invited to Guantanamo to come interview their own nationals.

In some cases, they would then share what they had learned about their nationals with us. In some cases, they would puzzle with the United States over exactly who these people were. Even they had difficulty placing some of them. That was part of the sort of strange environment of this non-state actor, al-Qaida, the Taliban, and people suspected of being parts of them encountering the world of nation-state governments.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you make — make much of that? I mean, did we know — we knew some of that, right?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: We knew some of that.

You know, there’s a bigger point from this that arises from this huge mass of information. We knew lots of it. Now we see it in much greater detail. We see what was underneath the redacted lines. But there’s so much information here. And there’s so many different kinds of people at Guantanamo, from low-level foot soldiers from Yemen that would have been sent back years ago if they had come from a more stable country, to extremely high-level, famous, notorious global terrorist operatives, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They’re all there together.

And in this huge heap of 700-plus documents, people are going to find what they’re looking for. There is enough new data here that you can mine it for whatever your preexisting faction’s view of Guantanamo is…

JEFFREY BROWN: Well…

CHARLIE SAVAGE: … whether lots of people are there who are innocent or lots of people are there who are extremely dangerous. It’s all true.

JEFFREY BROWN: So…

CHARLIE SAVAGE: And so all these conclusions are mixing together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, just to pick up on that, Tom, as we said in our setup piece, the Obama administration did its own reassessment…

TOM GJELTEN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … when it came into office. And when these were released, it — or just before they were released, they put out a statement and they said that these new files may or may not reflect current thinking about particular individuals.

So, what does that tell you? I mean, how do you — how should we read these older documents, today’s…

TOM GJELTEN: Well, the — all the detainees currently at Guantanamo were assessed under this process. So, they all had a risk rating at one point.

The Obama administration came in and basically sort of threw out that whole risk approach. And, instead, the Obama administration is trying to find what to do with each individual detainee, whether to prosecute them, whether to hold them indefinitely, or to transfer them.

And what they’re really applying now is a much more customized process. Rather than putting the detainees under some kind of label, define: What is the solution for this detainee? What’s the solution for this detainee? If they can be transferred, is there a place they can be transferred securely?

So, it’s much more — a much more customized approach that this administration is following.

JEFFREY BROWN: They don’t even use that high, medium, low anymore, do they?

TOM GJELTEN: They haven’t — they don’t say that they’re not using it, but they don’t seem very anxious to talk about it. Let’s put it that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Tom Gjelten, NPR, Charlie Savage of The New York Times, thank you both very much.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: You’re so welcome.

TOM GJELTEN: Thank you.