(wire service, US newspaper chain)
Sunday 15 June 2008
America's prison for terrorists
often held the wrong men
by Tom Lasseter, McClatchy Newspapers
GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- The militants crept up behind Mohammed Akhtiar as he squatted at the spigot to wash his hands before evening prayers at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
They shouted "Allahu Akbar" — God is great — as one of them hefted a metal mop squeezer into the air, slammed it into Akhtiar's head and sent thick streams of blood running down his face.
Akhtiar was among the more than 770 terrorism suspects imprisoned at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They are the men the Bush administration described as "the worst of the worst."
But Akhtiar was no terrorist. American troops had dragged him out of his Afghanistan home in 2003 and held him in Guantanamo for three years in the belief that he was an insurgent involved in rocket attacks on U.S. forces. The Islamic radicals in Guantanamo's Camp Four who hissed "infidel" and spat at Akhtiar, however, knew something his captors didn't: The U.S. government had the wrong guy.
"He was not an enemy of the government, he was a friend of the government," a senior Afghan intelligence officer told McClatchy. Akhtiar was imprisoned at Guantanamo on the basis of false information that local anti-government insurgents fed to U.S. troops, he said.
An eight-month McClatchy investigation in 11 countries on three continents has found that Akhtiar was one of dozens of men — and, according to several officials, perhaps hundreds — whom the U.S. has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments.
McClatchy interviewed 66 released detainees, more than a dozen local officials — primarily in Afghanistan — and U.S. officials with intimate knowledge of the detention program. The investigation also reviewed thousands of pages of U.S. military tribunal documents and other records.
This unprecedented compilation shows that most of the 66 were low-level Taliban grunts, innocent Afghan villagers or ordinary criminals. At least seven had been working for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and had no ties to militants, according to Afghan local officials. In effect, many of the detainees posed no danger to the United States or its allies.
The investigation also found that despite the uncertainty about whom they were holding, U.S. soldiers beat and abused many prisoners.
Prisoner mistreatment became a regular feature in cellblocks and interrogation rooms at Bagram and Kandahar air bases, the two main way stations in Afghanistan en route to Guantanamo.
While he was held at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base, Akhtiar said, "When I had a dispute with the interrogator, when I asked, 'What is my crime?' the soldiers who took me back to my cell would throw me down the stairs."
The McClatchy reporting also documented how U.S. detention policies fueled support for extremist Islamist groups. For some detainees who went home far more militant than when they arrived, Guantanamo became a school for jihad, or Islamic holy war.
Of course, Guantanamo also houses Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, who along with four other high-profile detainees faces military commission charges. Cases also have been opened against 15 other detainees for assorted offenses, such as attending al Qaida training camps.
But because the Bush administration set up Guantanamo under special rules that allowed indefinite detention without charges or federal court challenge, it's impossible to know how many of the 770 men who've been held there were terrorists.
A series of White House directives placed "suspected enemy combatants" beyond the reach of U.S. law or the 1949 Geneva Conventions' protections for prisoners of war. President Bush and Congress then passed legislation that protected those detention rules.
However, the administration's attempts to keep the detainees beyond the law came crashing down last week.
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that detainees have the right to contest their cases in federal courts, and that a 2006 act of Congress forbidding them from doing so was unconstitutional. "Some of these petitioners have been in custody for six years with no definitive judicial determination as to the legality of their detention," the court said in its 5-4 decision, overturning Bush administration policy and two acts of Congress that codified it.
One former administration official said the White House's initial policy and legal decisions "probably made instances of abuse more likely. ... My sense is that decisions taken at the top probably sent a signal that the old rules don't apply ... certainly some people read what was coming out of Washington: The gloves are off, this isn't a Geneva world anymore."
Like many others who previously worked in the White House or Defense Department, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the legal and political sensitivities of the issue.
McClatchy's interviews are the most ever conducted with former Guantanamo detainees by a U.S. news organization. The issue of detainee backgrounds has previously been reported on by other media outlets, but not as comprehensively.
McClatchy also in many cases did more research than either the U.S. military at Guantanamo, which often relied on secondhand accounts, or the detainees' lawyers, who relied mainly on the detainees' accounts.
The Pentagon declined to discuss the findings. It issued a statement Friday saying that military policy always has been to treat detainees humanely, to investigate credible complaints of abuse and to hold people accountable. The statement says that an al Qaida manual urges detainees to lie about prison conditions once they're released. "We typically do not respond to each and every allegation of abuse made by past and present detainees," the statement said.
Little Intelligence Value
The McClatchy investigation found that top Bush administration officials knew within months of opening the Guantanamo detention center that many of the prisoners there weren't "the worst of the worst." From the moment that Guantanamo opened in early 2002, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White said, it was obvious that at least a third of the population didn't belong there.
Of the 66 detainees whom McClatchy interviewed, the evidence indicates that 34 of them, about 52 percent, had connections with militant groups or activities. At least 23 of those 34, however, were Taliban foot soldiers, conscripts, low-level volunteers or adventure-seekers who knew nothing about global terrorism.
Only seven of the 66 were in positions to have had any ties to al Qaida's leadership, and it isn't clear that any of them knew any terrorists of consequence.
If the former detainees whom McClatchy interviewed are any indication — and several former high-ranking U.S. administration and defense officials said in interviews that they are — most of the prisoners at Guantanamo weren't terrorist masterminds but men who were of no intelligence value in the war on terrorism.
Far from being an ally of the Taliban, Mohammed Akhtiar had fled to Pakistan shortly after the puritanical Islamist group took power in 1996, the senior Afghan intelligence officer told McClatchy. The Taliban burned down Akhtiar's house after he refused to ally his tribe with their government.
The Americans detained Akhtiar, the intelligence officer said, because they were given bad information by another Afghan who'd harbored a personal vendetta against Akhtiar going back to his time as a commander against the Soviet military during the 1980s.
"In some of these cases, tribal feuds and political feuds have played a big role" in people getting sent to Guantanamo, the intelligence officer said.
He didn't want his name used, partly because he didn't want to offend the Western officials he works with and partly because Afghan intelligence officers are assassinated regularly.
"There were Afghans being sent to Guantanamo because of bad intelligence," said Helaluddin Helal, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister for security from 2002 to early 2004. "In the beginning, everyone was trying to give intelligence to the Americans ... the Americans were taking action without checking this information."
Nusrat Khan was in his 70s when American troops shoved him into an isolation cell at Bagram in the spring of 2003. They blindfolded him, put earphones on his head and tied his hands behind his back for almost four weeks straight, Khan said.
By the time he was taken out of the cell, Khan — who'd had at least two strokes years before he was arrested and was barely able to walk — was half-mad and couldn't stand without help. Khan said that he was taken to Guantanamo on a stretcher.
Several Afghan officials, including the country's attorney general, later said that Khan, who spent more than three years at Guantanamo, wasn't a threat to anyone; he'd been turned in as an insurgent leader because of decades-old rivalries with competing Afghan militias.
Ghalib Hassan was an Interior Ministry-appointed district commander in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, a man who'd risked his life to help the U.S.-backed government. Din Mohammed, the former governor of that province and now the governor of Kabul, said there was no question that local tribal leaders, offended by Hassan's brusque style, fed false information about him to local informants used by American troops.
The Pentagon declined requests to make top officials, including the secretary of defense, available to respond to McClatchy's findings. The defense official in charge of detainee affairs, Sandra Hodgkinson, refused to speak with McClatchy.
The Pentagon's only response to a series of written questions from McClatchy, and to a list of 63 of the 66 former detainees interviewed for this story, was a three-paragraph statement.
"These unlawful combatants have provided valuable information in the struggle to protect the U.S. public from an enemy bent on murder of innocent civilians," Col. Gary Keck said in the statement. He provided no examples.
Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, until recently the commanding officer at Guantanamo, said that detainees had supplied crucial information about al Qaida, the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
"Included with the folks that were brought here in 2002 were, by and large, the main leadership of al Qaida and the Taliban," he said in a phone interview.
Buzby agreed, however, that some detainees were from the bottom rung.
"It's all about developing the mosaic ... there's value to both ends of the spectrum," he said.
Former senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials, however, said McClatchy's conclusions squared with their own observations.
"As far as intelligence value from those in Gitmo, I got tired of telling the people writing reports based on their interrogations that their material was essentially worthless," a U.S. intelligence officer said in an e-mail, using the military's slang for Guantanamo.
Guantanamo authorities periodically sent analysts at the U.S. Central Command "rap sheets on various prisoners and asked our assessment whether they merited continued confinement," said the analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "Over about three years, I assessed around 40 of these individuals, mostly Afghans. ... I only can remember recommending that ONE should be kept at GITMO."
'War Council' Rewrites Detainee Law
At a Pentagon briefing in the spring of 2002, a senior Army intelligence officer expressed doubt about the entire intelligence-gathering process.
"He said that we're not getting anything, and his thought was that we're not getting anything because there might not be anything to get," said Donald J. Guter, a retired rear admiral who was the head of the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps at the time.
Many detainees were "swept up in the pot" by large operations conducted by Afghan troops allied with the Americans, said former Army Secretary White, who's now a partner at DKRW Energy, an energy company in Houston.
One of the Afghan detainees at Guantanamo, White recalled, was more than 80 years old.
Army Spc. Eric Barclais, who was a military intelligence interrogator at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan from September 2002 through January 2003, told military investigators in sworn testimony that "We recommended lots of folks be released from (Bagram), but they were not. I believe some people ended up at (Guantanamo) that had no business being sent there."
"You have to understand some folks were detained because they got turned in by neighbors or family members who were feuding with them," Barclais said. "Yes, they had weapons. Everyone had weapons. Some were Soviet-era and could not even be fired."
A former Pentagon official told McClatchy that he was shocked at times by the backgrounds of men held at Guantanamo.
" 'Captured with weapon near the Pakistan border?' " the official said. "Are you kidding me?"
"The screening, the understanding of who we had was horrible," he said. "That's why we had so many useless people at Gitmo."
In 2002, a CIA analyst interviewed several dozen detainees at Guantanamo and reported to senior National Security Council officials that many of them didn't belong there, a former White House official said.
Despite the analyst's findings, the administration made no further review of the Guantanamo detainees. The White House had determined that all of them were enemy combatants, the former official said.
Rather than taking a closer look at whom they were holding, a group of five White House, Justice Department and Pentagon lawyers who called themselves the "War Council" devised a legal framework that enabled the administration to detain suspected "enemy combatants" indefinitely with few legal rights.
The threat of new terrorist attacks, the War Council argued, allowed President Bush to disregard or rewrite American law, international treaties and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to permit unlimited detentions and harsh interrogations.
The group further argued that detainees had no legal right to defend themselves, and that American soldiers — along with the War Council members, their bosses and Bush — should be shielded from prosecution for actions that many experts argue are war crimes.
With the support of Bush, Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the group shunted aside the military justice system, and in February 2002, Bush suspended the legal protection for detainees spelled out in Common Article Three of the 1949 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, which outlaws degrading treatment and torture.
The Bush administration didn't launch a formal review of the detentions until a 2004 Supreme Court decision forced it to begin holding military tribunals at Guantanamo. The Supreme Court ruling last week said that the tribunals were deeply flawed, but it didn't close them down.
In late 2004, Pentagon officials decided to restrict further interrogations at Guantanamo to detainees who were considered "high value" for their suspected knowledge of terrorist groups or their potential of returning to the battlefield, according to Matthew Waxman, who was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, the Defense Department's head official for detainee matters, from August 2004 to December 2005.
"Maybe three-quarters of the detainees by 2005 were no longer regularly interrogated," said Waxman, who's now a law professor at Columbia University.
At that time, about 500 men were still being held at Guantanamo.
So far, the military commissions have publicly charged only six detainees — less than 1 percent of the more than 770 who've been at Guantanamo — with direct involvement in the 9-11 terrorist attacks; they dropped the charges in one case. Those few cases are now in question after the high court's ruling Thursday.
About 500 detainees — nearly two out of three — have been released.
During a military review board hearing at Guantanamo, Mohammed Akhtiar had some advice for the U.S. officers seated before him.
"I wish," he said, "that the United States would realize who the bad guys are and who the good guys are."
How Foot Soldiers, Farmers Got Swept Up
How did the United States come to hold so many farmers and goat herders among the real terrorists at Guantanamo? Among the reasons:
After conceding control of the country to U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, top Taliban and al Qaida leaders escaped to Pakistan, leaving the battlefield filled with ragtag groups of volunteers and conscripts who knew nothing about global terrorism.
The majority of the detainees taken to Guantanamo came into U.S. custody indirectly, from Afghan troops, warlords, mercenaries and Pakistani police who often were paid cash by the number and alleged importance of the men they handed over. Foot soldiers brought in hundreds of dollars, but commanders were worth thousands. Because of the bounties — advertised in fliers that U.S. planes dropped all over Afghanistan in late 2001 — there was financial incentive for locals to lie about the detainees' backgrounds. Only 33 percent of the former detainees — 22 out of 66 — whom McClatchy interviewed were detained initially by U.S. forces. Of those 22, 17 were Afghans who'd been captured around mid-2002 or later as part of the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, a fight that had more to do with counter-insurgency than terrorism.
American soldiers and interrogators were susceptible to false reports passed along by informants and officials looking to settle old grudges in Afghanistan, a nation that had experienced more than two decades of occupation and civil war before U.S. troops arrived. This meant that Americans were likely to arrest Afghans who had no significant connections to militant groups. For example, of those 17 Afghans whom the U.S. captured in mid-2002 or later, at least 12 of them were innocent of the allegations against them, according to interviews with Afghan intelligence and security officials.
Detainees at Guantanamo had no legal venue in which to challenge their detentions. The only mechanism set up to evaluate their status, an internal tribunal in the late summer of 2004, rested on the decisions of rotating panels of three U.S. military officers. The tribunals made little effort to find witnesses who weren't present at Guantanamo, and detainees were in no position to challenge the allegations against them.
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Copyright (c) 2008 McClatchy Newspapers
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Look, we abdicated our foreign policy to another country [guess who?] and their agents - in our government - influence policy to kill Muslims and protect ------'s [fill in the blanks - begins with IS]
If we clean up government and prosecute these monsters for treason - we will have peace with 1.6 billion Muslims. See if this makes it past the censors.
What makes me grind my teeth is the way people (including, apparently and amazingly, Justices Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Alito) seem to believe that granting habeas corpus is the equivalent of letting everyone go. What don't they understand about "Pony up your evidence, which surely you must have after six long years"? No one's talking about letting bad people go free. Not in any way shape or form. Yet Scalia says, in a shocking breach of Court etiquette, that the ruling amounts to murder.
The mind reels...
Whaaa! I need to wrongfully imprison people I'm scared.
Whaaa! I need to listen into people's phone calls
Whaaa! Protect me I don't need a jury of my peers. One of them might be a terrorist.
Whaaa! I no longer need the right to choose, Hilary lost so all woman will suffer... Oh sorry wrong article.
My inlaws grew up under Soviet occupation in the Czech Republic. Upon hearing about this story they askedt me IF GEORGE BUSH IS A COMMUNIST RED because the SOVIETS BEHAVED THE SAME WAY. It's funny the party of blacklisting is now a bunch of reds begging for the MOMMY government to protect their frightened pathetic selves from the mean terrorists. Go move to China. That's where all your businesses are anyway.
My freedom is worth more than your cowardice and fear.
Thank you McClatchy, I have tried to put your story to some good use
Your are sourced and linked and block quoted to give credit due and to encourage pass through. Hopefully your work will create some knowledge and discourse more elevated than that of the past 6 years.
Thank you for an informative article, but the facts and easlly confirmed suspicions of deception by the Cheney/Bush are no surprise at all. Since the beginning of this faked business of the "war on terrorism" as framed by the Cheney/Bush administration, the need to "demonstrate" to Americans and the world that they have been "making progess" in this desperate "struggle" - - by grabbing any and all of the Muslims, or whoever has happened to be convenient, they could off the streets of Iraq, or wherever, and throwing them into prison - - innocents and guilty alike, but MOSTLY INNOCENTS because the Bushies have never bothered themselves to be very discriminating about whom they have kidnapped. The Cheney/Bush "war on terrorism" needed warm BODIES - - any bodies -- for their PR campaign to justify their neocon fantasy of a "democratic" MidEast brought about by an insane, illegal war and occupation. So hundreds of people languish in prisons all over the world (Where ? No one knows really where the prisons are located but the Cheney/Bush mob), many subjected to torture and some undoubtedly dying while in prison. It is a human catastrophy and world class criminal campaign of Nazi proportions. Cheney and Bush are tin-horn dictators, but the American MSM is in total denial.
I want to thank McClatchy News for their fine investigation. Gitmo is even worst than I had thought and I always knew it was illegal as all get out. This Bush administration has trained this bunch of illegally detained men have valid reasons to be terrorists against the US. Yes, a reasonable response to their treatment of these prisoners by these Bushie despots. The Administration has acted like a bunch of anti-Aamerican despots who deserve to pay millions to the detainees for the illegal persecution heaped upon them. The Bushies should personally have to pay the damages from their systematic abuse they have encvouraged and allowed to be done to these prisoner's lives. Now, with the new Supreme Court finding, if Bush stalls release for even one day, that will add to the evidence the House already has re: the Bush illegal treatment of these detainees. Sure evidence of Bush's High crimes. We should send him to jail for years and years. Impeach him and then send him to jail for years for malfeasance in office. Maybe see hou he would react to the same kind of treatment he ordered for these detainees. See if he still says the treatment meets ethical standards.
The most preposterous thing about any attempt to try to justify this Administration's illegal treatment of Prisoners in our prisons or those instances of renditions to despotic countries so they could abuse prisoners - all that will come back to haunt the very essence of our country. We will have no moral authority to demand Geneva Convention protection for any of our folks who need Geneva Convention protection. Of course, neither Bush nor Cheney ever had any active duty experience where they might have been captured so I guess they feel free to just risk the safety of future prisoners if they give any thought at all to the issue. But somehow things seem to be righted by god Himself. Bush's popularity is in the toilet right now and I am sure he gets the message that his and Cheney's behavior is totally unacceptable to a large majority of Americans. And I say, thank you God for that sort of moral rudder the supreme court insists on and that ideal that is in the hearts of Americans.
You left out several people who should be in Guantanamo--Bush, Cheney, Rice, and throw in Pelosi for corruption and aiding and abetting the aforementioned threesome.
Bush & Co. are already on trial for war crimes in our political satire -- The reality is disgusting, humiliating, demoralizing and appalling -- so what could we do, but go ahead and put the Bushies on trial for their war crimes -- just in case it never happens in real life, and you want a little poetic justice, stop on by funwithwarcrimes.com
ABOUT THIS SERIES
An eight-month McClatchy investigation of the detention system created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has found that the U.S. imprisoned innocent men, subjected them to abuse, stripped them of their legal rights and allowed Islamic militants to turn the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba into a school for jihad.
* Sunday: We got the wrong guys
* Today: 'I guess you can call it torture'
* Coming Tuesday: A school for Jihad
* Wednesday: 'Due process is legal mumbo-jumbo'
* Thursday: 'You are the king of this prison'
READ THE EVIDENCE
Browse an archive of documents obtained by McClatchy in the course of this investigation.
* About the project: Beyond the Law
* Interview: Abdul Salam Zaeef
* Interview: Nazar Chaman Gul
* Interview: Haji Galib Hasan
* Interview: Mohammed Nassim
* Interview: Akhtar Mohammad
* Interview: Amir Jan Ghorzang
* Interview: Syed Ajan
* Interview: Abdul Salam Zaeef
* Interview: Mohammed Aman
* Interview: Mohammed Naim Farouq
GRAPHICS (PDF FORMAT)
* Supreme court rulings on Guantanamo
* Detainee abuse and the rule of law
* Facts about the detainees
* Stories of 4 detainees
* Where detainees were held
* Detainees' homelands
* The king of Guantanamo
* Map of Afghanistan, Pakistan
* Images of detainees held at Guantanamo
* Images of detainees held in Afghanistan
* Faces of detainees
* More faces of detainees