The Guantánamo Files are classified documents that open a window on a prison, nearly 10 years after its establishment.
A trove of more than 700 classified military documents provides new and detailed accounts of the men who have done time at the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, and offers new insight into the evidence against the 172 men still locked up there.
Military intelligence officials, in assessments of detainees written between February 2002 and January 2009, evaluated their histories and provided glimpses of the tensions between captors and captives. What began as a jury-rigged experiment after the 2001 terrorist attacks now seems like an enduring American institution, and the leaked files show why, by laying bare the patchwork and contradictory evidence that in many cases would never have stood up in criminal court or a military tribunal.
The documents meticulously record the detainees' “pocket litter” when they were captured: a bus ticket to Kabul, a fake passport and forged student ID, a restaurant receipt, even a poem. They list the prisoners' illnesses — hepatitis, gout, tuberculosis, depression. They note their serial interrogations, enumerating — even after six or more years of relentless questioning — remaining “areas of potential exploitation.” They describe inmates' infractions — punching guards, tearing apart shower shoes, shouting across cellblocks. And, as analysts try to bolster the case for continued incarceration, they record years of detainees' comments about one another.
The secret documents, made available to The New York Times and several other news organisations, reveal that most of the 172 remaining prisoners have been rated as a “high risk” of posing a threat to the United States and its allies if released without adequate rehabilitation and supervision. But they also show that an even larger number of the prisoners who have left Cuba — about a third of the 600 already transferred to other countries — were also designated “high risk” before they were freed or passed to the custody of other governments.
Silent on interrogation tactics
The documents are largely silent about the use of the harsh interrogation tactics at Guantánamo — including sleep deprivation, shackling in stress positions and prolonged exposure to cold temperatures — that drew global condemnation. Several prisoners, though, are portrayed as making up false stories about being subjected to abuse.
The government's basic allegations against many detainees have long been public, and have often been challenged by prisoners and their lawyers. But the dossiers, prepared under the Bush administration, provide a deeper look at the frightening, if flawed, intelligence that has persuaded the Obama administration, too, that the prison cannot readily be closed.
Prisoners who especially worried counter-terrorism officials included some accused of being assassins for al-Qaeda, operatives for a cancelled suicide mission and detainees who vowed to their interrogators that they would wreak revenge against America.
The military analysts' files provide new details about the most infamous of their prisoners, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the planner of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Sometime around March 2002, he ordered a former Baltimore resident to don a suicide bomb vest and carry out a “martyrdom” attack against Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan's President, according to the documents. But when the man, Majid Khan, got to the Pakistani mosque that he had been told Mr. Musharraf would visit, the assignment turned out to be just a test of his “willingness to die for the cause.”
The dossiers also show the seat-of-the-pants intelligence gathering in war zones that led to the incarcerations of innocent men for years in cases of mistaken identity or simple misfortune. In May 2003, for example, Afghan forces captured Prisoner 1051, an Afghan named Sharbat, near the scene of a roadside bomb explosion, the documents show. He denied any involvement, saying he was a shepherd. Guantánamo debriefers and analysts agreed, citing his consistent story, his knowledge of herding animals and his ignorance of “simple military and political concepts,” according to his assessment. Yet a military tribunal declared him an “enemy combatant” anyway, and he was not sent home until 2006.
Obtained by WikiLeaks; NYT's source
Obama administration officials condemned the publication of the classified documents, which were obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks last year but provided to The Times by another source. The officials pointed out that an administration task force set up in January 2009 reviewed the information in the prisoner assessments, and in some cases came to different conclusions. Thus, they said, the documents published by The Times may not represent the government's current view of detainees at Guantánamo.
Among the findings in the files:
The 20th hijacker: The best-documented case of an abusive interrogation at Guantánamo was the coercive questioning, in late 2002 and early 2003, of Mohammed Qahtani. A Saudi believed to have been an intended participant in the September 11 attacks, Mr. Qahtani was leashed like a dog, sexually humiliated and forced to urinate on himself. His file says, “Although publicly released records allege detainee was subject to harsh interrogation techniques in the early stages of detention,” his confessions “appear to be true and are corroborated in reporting from other sources.” But claims that he is said to have made about at least 16 other prisoners — mostly in April and May 2003 — are cited in their files without any caveat.
Threats against captors: While some detainees are described in the documents as “mostly compliant and rarely hostile to guard force and staff,” others spoke of violence. One detainee said “he would like to tell his friends in Iraq to find the interrogator, slice him up, and make a shwarma (a type of sandwich) out of him, with the interrogator's head sticking out of the end of the shwarma.” Another “threatened to kill a U.S. service member by chopping off his head and hands when he gets out,” and informed a guard that “he will murder him and drink his blood for lunch. Detainee also stated he would fly planes into houses and prayed that President Bush would die.”
The role of foreign officials: The leaked documents show how many foreign countries sent intelligence officers to question Guantánamo detainees — among them China, Russia, Tajikistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Algeria and Tunisia. One such visit changed a detainee's account: a Saudi prisoner initially told American interrogators he had travelled to Afghanistan to train at a Libyan-run terrorist training camp. But an analyst added: “Detainee changed his story to a less incriminating one after the Saudi Delegation came and spoke to the detainees.”
An al-Qaeda leader's reputation: The file for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who was charged before a military commission last week for plotting the bombing of the American destroyer Cole in 2000, says he was “more senior” in al-Qaeda than Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and describes him as “so dedicated to jihad that he reportedly received injections to promote impotence and recommended the injections to others so more time could be spent on the jihad (rather than being distracted by women).”
The Yemenis' hard luck: The files for dozens of the remaining prisoners portray them as low-level foot-soldiers who travelled from Yemen to Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks to receive basic military training and fight in the civil war there, not as global terrorists. Otherwise identical detainees from other countries were sent home many years ago, the files show, but the Yemenis remain at Guantánamo because of concerns over the stability of their country and its ability to monitor them.
Dubious information: Some assessments revealed the risk of relying on information supplied by people whose motives were murky. Hajji Jalil, then a 33-year-old Afghan, was captured in July 2003, after the Afghan chief of intelligence in Helmand Province said Mr. Jalil had taken an “active part” in an ambush that killed two American soldiers. But American officials, citing “fraudulent circumstances,” said later that the intelligence chief and others had participated in the ambush, and they had “targeted” Mr. Jalil “to provide cover for their own involvement.” He was sent home in March 2005.
A British agent: One report reveals that American officials discovered a detainee had been recruited by British and Canadian intelligence to work as an agent because of his “connections to members of various al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups.” But the report suggests that he had never shifted his militant loyalties. It says that the Central Intelligence Agency, after repeated interrogations of the detainee, concluded that he had “withheld important information” from the British and Canadians, and assessed him “to be a threat” to American and allied personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has since been sent back to his country.
A journalist's interrogation: The documents show that a major reason a Sudanese cameraman for Al Jazeera, Sami al-Hajj, was held at Guantánamo for six years was for questioning about the television network's “training program, telecommunications equipment, and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo, and Afghanistan,” including contacts with terrorist groups. While Mr. Hajj insisted he was just a journalist, his file says he helped Islamic extremist groups courier money and obtain Stinger missiles and cites the United Arab Emirates' claim that he was a Qaeda member. He was released in 2008 and returned to work for Al Jazeera.
The first to leave: The documents offer the first public look at the military's views of 158 detainees who did not receive a formal hearing under a system instituted in 2004. Many were assessed to be “of little intelligence value” with no ties to or significant knowledge about al-Qaeda or the Taliban, as was the case of a detainee who was an Afghan used car salesman. But also among those freed early was a Pakistani who would become a suicide attacker three years later.
Images of prisoners
Many of the dossiers include official close-up photographs of the detainees, providing images of hundreds of the prisoners, many of whom have not been seen publicly in years.
The files — classified “secret” and marked “noforn,” meaning they should not be shared with foreign governments — represent the fourth major collection of secret American documents that have become public over the past year; earlier releases included military incident reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and portions of an archive of some 250,000 diplomatic cables. Military prosecutors have accused an Army intelligence analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, of leaking the materials.
The Guantánamo assessments seem unlikely to end the long-running debate about America's most controversial prison. The documents can be mined for evidence supporting beliefs across the political spectrum about the relative perils posed by the detainees and whether the government's system of holding most without trials is justified.
Much of the information in the documents is impossible to verify. The documents were prepared by intelligence and military officials operating at first in the haze of war, then, as the years passed, in a prison under international criticism. In some cases, judges have rejected the government's allegations, because confessions were made during coercive interrogation or other sources were not credible.
In 2009, a task force of officials from the government's national security agencies re-evaluated all 240 detainees then remaining at the prison. They vetted the military's assessments against information held by other agencies, and dropped the “high/medium/low” risk ratings in favour of a more nuanced look at how each detainee might fare if released, in light of his specific family and national environment. But those newer assessments are still secret and not available for comparison.
Moreover, the leaked archive is not complete; it contains no assessments for about 75 of the detainees.
Yet for all the limitations of the files, they still offer an extraordinary look inside a prison that has long been known for its secrecy and for a struggle between the military that runs it — using constant surveillance, forced removal from cells and other tools to exert control — and detainees who often fought back with the limited tools available to them: hunger strikes, threats of retribution and hoarded contraband ranging from a metal screw to leftover food.
Scores of detainees were given disciplinary citations for “inappropriate use of bodily fluids,” as some files delicately say; other files make clear that detainees on a fairly regular basis were accused by guards of throwing urine and faeces.
No new prisoners have been transferred to Guantánamo since 2007. Some Republicans are urging the Obama administration to send newly captured terrorism suspects to the prison, but so far officials have refused to increase the inmate population.
As a result, Guantánamo seems increasingly frozen in time, with detainees locked into their roles at the receding moment of their capture. For example, an assessment of a former top Taliban official said he “appears to be resentful of being apprehended while he claimed he was working for the U.S. and Coalition forces to find Mullah Omar,” a reference to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban chief who is in hiding.
But whatever the truth about the detainee's role before his capture in 2002, it is receding into the past. So, presumably, is the value of whatever information he possesses. Still, his jailers have continued to press him for answers. His assessment of January 2008 — six years after he arrived in Cuba — contended that it was worthwhile to continue to interrogate him, in part because he might know about Mullah Omar's “possible whereabouts.”
(Charlie Savage reported from Washington, and William Glaberson and Andrew W. Lehren from New York. Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington, and Benjamin Weiser and Andrei Scheinkman from New York.) — © New York Times News Service