A TALE OF TWO GITMOS: WHERE WAS THE TRUTH?
by William Fisher
American Reporter Correspondent
Old Chatham, N.Y.
OLD CHATHAM, N.Y. - Last June 17, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters, "If you think of the people down there (at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), these are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield. They're terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers, (Osama bin Laden's) bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers, probably the 20th 9/11 hijacker."
Yet two recent reports, based on the Defense Department's own documentation, reach conclusions that are dramatically different than Mr. Rumsfeld's. And, amid the millions of words journalists have written about Gitmo during the past few years, the mainstream press has largely ignored these new reports.
One report, prepared by a team headed by Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey - who is a lawyer for two of the Guantanamo detainees - found that more than half of the terror suspects being held have not been accused of committing hostile acts against the United States or its allies.
Compiled from declassified Defense Dept. evaluations of the more than 500 detainees at the Cuba facility, the report says just eight percent are listed as fighters for a terrorist group, while 30 percent are considered members of a terrorist group and the remaining 60 percent were just "associated with" terrorists.
The evaluations were completed as part of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals conducted during 2004 to determine if the prisoners were being correctly held as enemy combatants. So far just 10 of the detainees have been formally charged with crimes and are headed for military tribunals.
According to the report, 55 percent of the detainees are informally accused of committing a hostile act. But the DOD's descriptions of their actions range from a high-ranking Taliban member who tortured and killed Afghan natives to people who possessed rifles, used a guesthouse or wore olive drab clothing.
The report also found that about one-third of the detainees were linked to al-Qaida; 22 percent to the Taliban; 28 percent to both; and 7 percent to either one or the other, but not specified.
Lolita C. Baldor of The Associated Press filed a story on the report on February 7, 2006. But few U.S. newspapers have run the story.
The DOD documents, which are publicly available, were declassified versions of evaluations that contain additional information about each detainee. Those additional details were not made public. The Pentagon had no comment on the report for the AP, which has filed a lawsuit seeking the release of the classified versions of the documents.
"The government has detained these individuals for more than four years, without a trial or judicial hearing, and has had unfettered access to each detainee for that time," said the Denbeaux report.
Of the approximately 760 prisoners brought to Guantanamo since 2002, the military has released 180 and transferred 76 to the custody of other countries.
The second report, written by Corine Hegland for the fiercely nonpartisan National Journal (NJ), was based on a review conducted by the magazine of files on 132 prisoners who have asked the courts for help, and a thorough reading of heavily censored transcripts from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals conducted in Guantanamo for 314 prisoners.
Its conclusion: Most of the "enemy combatants" held at Guantanamo - for four years now - are simply not "the worst of the worst" of the terrorist world.
"Many of them are not accused of hostilities against the United States or its allies. Most, when captured, were innocent of any terrorist activity, were Taliban foot soldiers at worst, and were often far less than that. And some, perhaps many, are guilty only of being foreigners in Afghanistan or Pakistan at the wrong time. And much of the evidence - even the classified evidence - gathered by the Defense Dept. against these men is flimsy, second-, third-, fourth- or 12th-hand. It's based largely on admissions by the detainees themselves or on coerced, or worse, interrogations of their fellow inmates, some of whom have been proved to be liars," the magazine said.
NJ reported, "Notwithstanding Rumsfeld's description, the majority of them were not caught by American soldiers on the battlefield. They came into American custody from third parties, mostly from Pakistan, some after targeted raids there, most after a dragnet for Arabs after 9/11."
It added, "Much of the evidence against the detainees is weak. One prisoner at Guantanamo, for example, has made accusations against more than 60 of his fellow inmates; that's more than 10 percent of Guantanamo's entire prison population".
The men in the orange jumpsuits, President Bush said, were terrorists, the National Journal recounted. "They were the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth, Rumsfeld said. They were so vicious, if given the chance they would gnaw through the hydraulic lines of a C-17 while they were being flown to Cuba, said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
But, says the magazine, the CIA didn't see it that way. "By the fall of 2002, it was common knowledge around CIA circles that fewer than 10 percent of Guantanamo's prisoners were high-value terrorist operatives, according to Michael Scheuer who headed the agency's bin Laden unit through 1999 and resigned in 2004."
According to Scheuer, "Most of the men were probably foot soldiers at best" who were "going to know absolutely nothing about terrorism." Guantanamo prisoners might be pumped for information about how they learned to fight, which could help American soldiers facing trained Islamic insurgencies. But the Defense Dept. and FBI interrogators at Guantanamo were interested more in catastrophic terrorism than in combat practicalities. They kept asking "every one of the guys about 9/11 and when was the next attack," questions most of these low-level prisoners couldn't answer.
Even as the CIA was deciding that most of the prisoners at Guantanamo didn't have much to say, Pentagon officials were getting frustrated with how little the detainees were saying. So they ramped up the pressure and gave interrogators more license, according to the magazine.
By June 2004 conditions were so bad at Guantanamo that the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only civilian group allowed to meet with detainees, sent a furious confidential report to the White House charging that the entire system in Cuba was "devised to break the will of prisoners at Guantanamo," making them "wholly dependent on their interrogators" through "humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions," according to a Defense Dept. report leaked to the New York Times.
The report called the operations "tantamount to torture." Pentagon officials, meanwhile, were citing the "safe, humane, and professional detention operation at Guantanamo that is providing valuable information in the war on terrorism." And Members of Congress were touting the prison's excellent cuisine.
Gabor Rona, international legal director for Human Rights First, told IPS, "If most of these guys are not al-Qaeda, i.e., are vanilla-flavored civilians or mere Taliban foot soldiers, then it gives the lie to the single mantra that the administration has left when attempting to defend itself against allegations of abuse in Gitmo: that the 'terrorists' are trained to make false allegations of abuse."
Rona said it reminds him of a story he sees as emblematic of the legal process at Guantanamo. "The story is about a guy who, after relentless interrogation, finally admitted to knowing Osama -'Yes, OK, I know him, I've seen him on Al Jazeera' - upon which basis the Combatant Status Review Tribunal was informed that 'the individual admits to knowing bin Laden'. And upon this information, he was adjudicated an 'enemy combatant'. "
Some reports disputing the Bush Administration's versions of conditions at Guantanamo have received widespread coverage in the U.S. press. For example, Amnesty International created a media firestorm with a report in which it referred to the prison as a "gulag". Also widely covered was the recent report from investigators for the United Nations Human Rights Commission, recommending that Guantanamo be closed down. On the other side of the ledger, the recent report from a United Nations team of experts from the UN Human Rights Commission received relatively little attention in mainstream media. It recommended closure of the Guantanamo prison.
Similarly, the Seton Hall and National Journal reports found the media largely asleep. It may well be that local editors feel their readership is suffering from Gitmo-overload. That's unfortunate. The American people have a right - a responsibility - to understand what their government is doing in their names.
AR Correspondent William Fisher is a distinguished former American diplomat.