More than 750 prisoners have been sent to Guantanamo since 2002. Bush administration officials have repeatedly referred to these Al Qaeda and Taliban "unlawful combatants" as "the worst of the worst." Nearly 250 detainees have been released; according to the Pentagon, at least 10 of them rejoined the fight. How dangerous are these unlawful combatants? And what do we know about the intelligence they're providing? Here are the views of Lt. Col. Thomas Berg, who served as a military lawyer at Guatanamo until August 2002; Brig. Gen. Rick Baccus and Sgt. Maj. John Van Natta, who supervised detentions at Guantanamo from March 2002 to October 2002 and October 2002 to September 2003 respectively; Mark Jacobson, who worked for the Defense Department's Prisoner Policy Team; Washington Post reporter Dana Priest; and Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA's Osama bin Laden desk from 1996 to 1999.
- Related Links
- Interview with Michael Ratner
A human rights lawyer and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Ratner is the lawyer for a group of British detainees known as the "Tipton Three." They were transferred from Afghanistan to Guantanamo because U.S. intelligence believed it had seen the three men in a video of Osama bin Laden at an Al Qaeda training camp. After a year and a half of coercive interrogation, the men admitted to being at the camp. Later, however, the British government found information indicating the men had been in Britain at the time they were supposedly at the training camp. The men were released. Ratner says his clients' story proved to him that "the way people were picked up in Afghanistan and in Pakistan was relatively arbitrary. You didn't pick up the worst of the worst or the most dangerous."
- JTF-GTMO Information on Detainees
Here is the most recent unclassified fact sheet provided by the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, Bay Cuba. It says that the detainees at Gitmo are "the single best repository of al-Qaida information in the Department of Defense," and that the detainees have provided info on Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, including information about their presence in the U.S. and Europe. It also says Gitmo houses detainees who were Al Qaeda explosives experts; some who were involved in planning attacks against the U.S., Europe and Central Asia, and others who provided financial aid to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. [Note: This is a pdf file; Adobe Acrobat required]
JAG, U.S. Army Reserve
Lt. Col. Thomas Berg
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I can understand why a lot of people were scraped up from the battlefield and brought to Gitmo, because we didn't know what we had, but we didn't have any real mechanisms to sort them out. And I think once we started sorting them out, we'd already stated publicly that we had "the worst of the worst." And it was a little hard to go against that and say, well, maybe some of them aren't quite the worst of the worst, and some of them are just the slowest guys off the battlefield.
So we had a bunch of people there that had little or no intelligence value. We lost sight of the fact that we intervened in what was then an ongoing civil war and that many of the Taliban who were fighting the Northern Alliance, while they certainly stood for things we don't stand for, were not necessarily opposed to us either. And they got caught up in that, too. I distinguish them from the hard-line Al Qaeda or the Taliban sympathizers who harbored the Al Qaeda, but they were all there in that big pot. They got brought over.
Then we also had a decision-making process for releasing these people, which was just byzantine and cumbersome. There must have been 16 or 17 different organizations which had to say "yea" before someone could be released. And no one wanted to be the one who said "yea" in case that person did turn out to be an Al Qaeda and he went and did something atrocious once you let him go. So they were very risk-averse, and it was just easier to keep them there. But we're stuck years later with a goodly number of them still there. It was not well-planned, I guess would be a fair criticism.
Commander of detentions at Guantanamo, March-October 2002
Brig. Gen. Rick Baccus
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We felt [the detainees] were dangerous, and we had to believe they were dangerous. We could not determine one way or the other at that point in time who was dangerous, who wasn't. So we believed that everybody was dangerous. …
I used to kind of joke a little bit about the detainees that came off on the various flights from Afghanistan, because you could tell the difference between Taliban and the Afghan fighters. The Afghan fighters were the short guys that only weighed about 90 pounds and looked like they'd been running up and down the hills. The Taliban were the nice, big, fat guys who weighed 250 pounds and looked like they'd been eating well on the economy.
And the Al Qaeda guys?
Who knows where they were? That's the question. That's the real question. How do we know who we have? ...
I can tell you that I know Gen. Dunlavey made a couple trips to Afghanistan to try and sort out the vetting process of who they were sending to Guantanamo and who they weren't, particularly after we received a couple that were severely medically impaired, shall we say. ...
But not having been in Afghanistan, not having picked the individual up who supposedly had been picked up with Iridium [satellite] cell phones with one of Osama bin Laden's phone numbers in it. So who knows what the real story is? But the point I'm trying to make is that there was a concern about who [was] getting sent to Guantanamo. ...
Warden, Camp Delta, Guantanamo, October 2002-September 2003
Sgt. Maj. John Van Natta
… [Americans were told] they were truly scary guys and they were the worst of the worst. Were they?
I would say a lot of them are the worst that probably exist in the whole world. The one thing that you mentioned, going back to Sept. 11, you know when the Taliban was in charge of Afghanistan and basically devoid of a government, these people from 42 to 44 countries were there to train in terrorist activity, to develop a terrorist organization.
You know, we take the assumption that they were doing it all against the United States. You know, they were here plotting and planning to wage war against the United States. What I found, from that standpoint, yes. You know, it is kind of an arrogant standpoint, you know, they are doing all this to fight us. But when talking with detainees when I was there, they have interests mostly against a lot of their own countries to do terrorists acts back in a large number of countries throughout the world.
And so their hatred wasn't strictly about the United States, even though we were kind of a forerunner. But their hatred is against as many nations and that's why it was kind of strange to me that more nations were not involved in trying to stop this organization from having -- you know, they already had a foothold, but to continue to be as organized as they were at the time before the attack on Afghanistan.
And so a lot of the detainees there, and I'm saying, just like prisoners here, there may be innocent prisoners imprisoned in the United States. And needless to say most of the prisoners in the United States will tell you that they are innocent, and the same way with the detainees. And I'm sure there maybe some that got caught up into the war and ended up there.
But as far as I know, they were all screened while they were still in Afghanistan by our government, our military there. And they were determined to be combatants against the United States or combatants against world peace before they were ever sent to Cuba. And so, did they make mistakes? I'm sure with 680 people being involved in an active war, I'm sure there could have been mistakes made. But, for the most part, I would say that the detainees that were sent there, if left unchecked, there would be a lot more Sept. 11 type of incidents, if not in the United States, someplace throughout the world.
Defense Department Prisoner Policy Team, 2002-2003
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You often hear from critics of Guantanamo, what possibly could these individuals know anymore, three years after 9/11? It's not just about what happened on 9/11. It's how you build a bomb, how you develop remote detonator devices, things that as we all know in the aftermath of the London bombings are still extraordinarily relevant. Let's learn how these organizations think.
As a historian, I'm often amazed that people don't think that we can learn from history. We're building the history of Al Qaeda operations through these interrogations. And if we learn how they understood back then, we may get a better sense of patterns, methods, tactics and techniques, ways of thinking that are going to allow us to prevent attacks in the future. ...
We were always getting good information. Whether or not the information is valuable or not is going to always be open to debate. For example, some people think that unless you're getting Osama bin Laden's address, what use is the information? Depends who the consumer is. It can be a very mundane fact such as the door on a particular safe house opens a certain way -- might be very important to some folks out in the field, might be less important to someone at OSD [Office of Secretary of Defense] policy who wants to know where bin Laden is. Understanding bank account numbers that may have been closed years ago may not seem important to someone who has to make a decision on whether or not we're going to release a particular detainee, but may be extraordinarily important for someone dealing with terrorist financing. The information, I think, has always been valuable. …
We were discovering that more individuals were trained to resist interrogation, that they were specifically trained how to deal with American approaches to interrogation. There's a great document out there called the Manchester Document, essentially the Al Qaeda manual. And what it explained was look, if you're being interrogated, just look at the wall. Don't look at the interrogator; go look at the wall. If they ask you things, simply recite what you read in the paper. Talk about things you hear on the American news and other approaches in order to resist interrogation. …
Reporter, Washington Post
Did your reporting reveal anything about -- I mean, Secretary Rumsfeld said the worst of the worst were in Guantanamo -- whether that was true or not?
… I certainly remember the intelligence community saying at the time that Gitmo was stood up, that they were never going to allow anyone of real value to go to Gitmo for exactly that reason. They were going to be interrogated by people who don't really know what they're doing, and all of the high-value people went into CIA hands, even the few, I think, that started out in military hands. If they were really somebody, and you could tell that right away, they would be transferred to the military. So they weren't of high value in the elite, more elite circles that the agency where they really do know who's who and all the networks and how they may or may not connect.
Beyond that, though, having spoken to some of the commanders on the ground in Afghanistan when Gitmo was standing up, those commanders wanted to hold on to anybody of real value for their battlefield because they were still fighting a war there and they wanted to make sure they had what they could, what they needed, to go find their enemies. So a lot of the people that got transferred to Gitmo appear to be the people that they didn't want, either.
And I think we're going to find that as more people are released, we have access to them, as more people are declared non-enemy combatants by this system … many more, who were yeah, probably foot soldiers for the Taliban, maybe even for Al Qaeda in some cases. They share that ideology, you know, against the infidels. But whether they actually know anything beyond what their little group of people were meant to do is really up for question.
Chief, CIA Bin Laden Desk, 1996-'99
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Part of the emphasis on this need for actionable intelligence comes from a bipartisan imperative among American leaders not to use their military to its full power, not to kill a lot of people or suffer any casualties. So instead, we've reduced the intelligence process to try to find the silver bullet, the one piece of intelligence from one of these captives that will allow us to kill bin Laden and make all of this bad stuff go away. It's an endeavor not only to gather information, but [to] prevent us from looking bad if you believe that using our military ruthlessly is a bad thing.
And so we talk to the gomers that come out of Afghanistan who are insurgent fighters as if they were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed potentially. And to turn that over to the military … results in things like Abu Ghraib or some of the things that happened in Guantanamo.
I personally don't think that any of those things are irredeemable evil. They're stupid. They're not going to result in any intelligence. And they certainly degraded the prisoners. But it all goes back to a mind-set that there is a piece of information out there that's going to make this nightmare stop, and we can wake up and go ahead with morning in America. And it's not going to happen. But politicians are not convinced of that yet.
You're a man who lived and breathed information, sifting it, understanding it, trying to get it. Do you think Gitmo is the environment to get any information?
Well, if you're looking for the right information, Gitmo in a sense was an opportunity that's been lost. We put together in Gitmo for the first time ... people who knew about Al Qaeda's insurgent organization. What those people should have been was a laboratory for us to find out about how insurgents are trained, what weapons they're trained to use. Are they trained in celestial navigation? What kind of combat medicine? To assemble almost an order of battle, information packet, so the military will know when they go on the field to fight insurgents how the enemy is organized.
Instead we spent the entire time to today looking for the guy who is the cousin of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who knows what's going after 9/11. So I think it's a mistake. It's a mistake because of the questions we didn't ask. We had a good audience for information, a good mass of people to gather information we needed, but not about the next 9/11, about the men we're fighting now on the ground in Afghanistan and in Iraq, for example, the insurgents.