Handcuffed to Gitmo: revelations from George Bush’s disaster prison, and why we’re still stuck with it

The latest Wikileaks disclosures show how big a botch job the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo is, and why we’re still stuck with it.

First, from the Miami Herald. the latest on just how badly the Bush administration botched it:

The world may have thought the U.S. was detaining a band of international terrorists whose questioning would help the hunt for Osama bin Laden or foil the next 9/11.

But a collection of secret intelligence documents from George W. Bush’s administration, not meant to surface for 20 years, shows that the military’s efforts at Guantánamo often were much less effective than the government has acknowledged. Viewed as a whole, the secret intelligence summaries help explain why in May 2009 President Barack Obama, after ordering his own review of wartime intelligence, called America’s experiment at Guantánamo “quite simply a mess.”

The documents, more than 750 individual assessments of former and current Guantánamo detainees, show an intelligence operation that was tremendously dependent on informants – both prison-camp snitches repeating what they’d heard from fellow captives and self-described, at times self-aggrandizing, former al-Qaeda insiders turned government witnesses who Pentagon records show have since been released.

Intelligence analysts are at odds with each other over which informants to trust, at times drawing inferences from prisoners exercise habits. They ordered DNA tests, tethered Taliban suspects to polygraphs, strung together tidbits at times in ways that seemed to defy common sense.

The documents also show that in the earliest years of the prison camp’s operation, the Pentagon permitted Chinese and Russian interrogators into the camps – information from those sessions are included in some captives’ assessments – something American defense lawyers working free for the foreign prisoners have alleged and protested for years.

Guantánamo analysts at times questioned the reliability of some information gleaned from other detainees’ interrogations.

Allegations and information from one Yemeni, no longer at Guantánamo, appears in at least 135 detainees’ files, prompting Navy Rear Adm. Dave Thomas, the prison camps commander in August 2008, to include this warning:

“Any information provided should be adequately verified through other sources before being utilized.”

The same report goes on to praise the captive as an “invaluable intelligence source” for information about “al Qaeda and Taliban training, operations, personnel and facilities,” and warns that he’d be at risk of retaliation if he were released into Yemeni society. He was resettled in Europe by the Obama administration.

In fact, information from just eight men showed up in risk-assessment forms for at least 235 Guantánamo detainees — some 30 percent of those known to have been held there. …

The Washington Post has more on what’s in the Wikileaks documents, including regarding the whereabouts of key al-Qaida suspects on 9/11:

On Sept. 11, 2001, the core of al-Qaeda was concentrated in a single city: Karachi, Pakistan.

At a hospital, the accused mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole was recovering from a tonsillectomy. Nearby, the alleged organizer of the 2002 bombing in Bali, Indonesia, was buying lab equipment for a biological weapons program. And in a safe house, the man who would later describe himself as the intellectual author of the Sept. 11 attacks was with other key al-Qaeda members watching the scenes from New York and Washington unfold on television.

Within a day, much of the al-Qaeda leadership was on the way back to Afghanistan, planning for a long war.

A cache of classified military documents obtained by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks presents new details of their whereabouts on Sept. 11, 2001, and their movements afterward. The documents also offer some tantalizing glimpses into the whereabouts and operations of Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The documents, provided to European and U.S. news outlets, including The Washington Post, are intelligence assessments of nearly every one of the 779 individuals who have been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002. In them, analysts have created detailed portraits of detainees based on raw intelligence, including material gleaned from interrogations.

Detainees are assessed “high,” “medium” or “low” in terms of their intelligence value, the threat they pose while in detention and the continued threat they might pose to the United States if released.

The documents tend to take a bleak view of the detainees, even those who have been ordered released by the federal courts because of a lack of evidence to justify their continued detention. And the assessments are often based, in part, on reporting by informants at the military detention center, sources that some judges have found wanting. …

So why is Gitmo still open?

From a Herald story in January: the intransigence of Congress stands out, particularly since American refusal to take any detainees has made other countries unwilling to do so:

Many factors worked to thwart Obama’s plans to close the camps — from a tangled bureaucracy to fears that released detainees would become terrorists. But Congress’ prohibition on resettling any of the detainees in the United States hamstrung the administration’s global search for countries willing to take the captives in.

The U.S. refusal to take in the captives “comes up all the time,” acknowledged a senior Obama administration official of U.S. efforts to find homes for released detainees.

“Were we willing to take a couple of detainees ourselves, it would’ve made the job of moving detainees out of Guantánamo significantly easier,” said the official, who agreed to speak only anonymously because of the delicacy of the diplomacy.

Still, the Obama administration has managed to arrange to find new homes for 38 Guantánamo detainees in 16 countries, including Bermuda, Bulgaria, Palau and Portugal.

Why?

Some countries found the individual stories of men at Guantánamo with no place to go “compelling,” the official said. “Some wanted to help the United States in general. Some wanted to help Obama in particular.”
Placing Guantánamo detainees was even more difficult even during the Bush administration, the WikiLeaks cables show.

Sweden in 2007 turned down a request that Stockholm provide safe haven for two Uzbek detainees who feared going home.

A cable quotes Sweden’s counterterrorism ambassador, Cecilia Ruthstrom-Ruin, as declaring “it is natural to wonder why,” if as free men the ex-captives need monitoring, the United States doesn’t undertake to handle it. …

That intransigence also comes up in this lengthy Wapo piece on why President Obama has been unable to fulfill his promise, sealed in his first two executive orders, to close the prison at Guantanamo. But what also stands out is the finger-pointing of unnamed Congressional aides, who seem eager to deflect blame onto the White House. White House aides, meanwhile, are just as eager to blame Congress:

Administration officials lay blame for the failed initiative on Congress, including Democrats who deserted the president, sometimes in droves. The debate, they said, became suffused with fear — fear that transferring detainees to American soil would create a genuine security threat, fear that closing Guantanamo would be electoral suicide. Some Democratic lawmakers pleaded with the White House not to press too hard, according to administration officials.

The White House asserts it was fully engaged in the effort to close Guantanamo.

“Any claim that the White House didn’t fight to close Guantanamo is just flat wrong,” spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

… The one theme that repeatedly emerged in interviews was a belief that the White House never pressed hard enough on what was supposed to be a signature goal. Although the closure of Guantanamo Bay was announced in an executive order, which Obama signed on Jan. 22, 2009, the fanfare never translated into the kind of political push necessary to sustain the policy.

“Vulnerable senators weren’t going out on a limb and risk being Willie Hortonized on Gitmo when the White House, with the most to lose, wasn’t even twisting arms,” said a senior Democratic aide whose boss was one of 50 Democrats to vote in 2009 against funding to close Guantanamo. “They weren’t breathing down our necks pushing the vote or demanding unified action.”

So did you see that? This aide’s boss voted along with the 50 Democrats who went against the president on Gitmo, but it’s the White House’s fault they caved on him.

You’ve gotta love Washington.

If the Wapo report is to be believed, it appears that no one in Washington has pushed hard enough on this, in the White House or on Capitol Hill. But Congress appears to have been playing a double game — throwing every conceivable road block in the way of closing Gitmo, and then blaming the White House, Rahm Emanuel, the president, or anyone else but themselves, for it still being open.

UPDATE: The New York Times, meanwhile, has the story of how one prisoner went from Gitmo inmate to U.S. ally — of sorts — in Libya:

For more than five years, Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda bin Qumu was a prisoner at the Guantánamo Bay prison, judged “a probable member of Al Qaeda” by the analysts there. They concluded in a newly disclosed 2005 assessment that his release would represent a “medium to high risk, as he is likely to pose a threat to the U.S., its interests and allies.”

Today, Mr. Qumu, 51, is a notable figure in the Libyan rebels’ fight to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, reportedly a leader of a ragtag band of fighters known as the Darnah Brigade for his birthplace, this shabby port town of 100,000 people in northeast Libya. The former enemy and prisoner of the United States is now an ally of sorts, a remarkable turnabout resulting from shifting American policies rather than any obvious change in Mr. Qumu.

He was a tank driver in the Libyan Army in the 1980s, when the Central Intelligence Agency was spending billions to support religious militants trying to drive Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. Mr. Qumu moved to Afghanistan in the early 1990s, just as Osama bin Laden and other former mujahedeen were violently turning against their former benefactor, the United States.

He was captured in Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, accused of being a member of the militant Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and sent to Guantánamo — in part because of information provided by Colonel Qaddafi’s government.

“The Libyan Government considers detainee a ‘dangerous man with no qualms about committing terrorist acts,’ ” says the classified 2005 assessment, evidently quoting Libyan intelligence findings, which was obtained by The New York Times. “ ‘He was known as one of the extremist commanders of the Afghan Arabs,’ ” the Libyan information continues, referring to Arab fighters who remained in Afghanistan after the anti-Soviet jihad.

When that Guantánamo assessment was written, the United States was working closely with Colonel Qaddafi’s intelligence service against terrorism. Now, the United States is a leader of the international coalition trying to oust Colonel Qaddafi — and is backing with air power the rebels, including Mr. Qumu. …

Read the rest here.

And the Times has more specifics on how the Bush administration treated the detainees:

¶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 Sept. 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.

… and other revelations, some of which are embarrassing indeed:

¶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 Yemenis’ hard luck: The files for dozens of the remaining prisoners portray them as low-level foot-soldiers who traveled from Yemen to Afghanistan before the Sept. 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. …

And perhaps the saddest revelations of all: that Republicans on the Hill continue to want to actively use Gitmo, even as the value of whatever information the detainees might ever have had fades into the past…

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 US 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.”

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11 Responses to Handcuffed to Gitmo: revelations from George Bush’s disaster prison, and why we’re still stuck with it

  1. bmull says:

    Obama signed an executive order to close Guantanamo shortly after taking office. He did this without knowing whether he could accomplish it. Sure Congress are a bunch of cowards. What else is new. The buck stops with the President.

  2. Henry says:

    BMULL wrote: “Sure Congress are a bunch of cowards. What else is new. The buck stops with the President.”

    That’s right. Because the President just refuses to wield his mystical Kenyan voodoo magic to get Congressional Dems (and Republicans) to give up their craven self-interest in order the do the right thing. All he did was sign an Executive Order that Gitmo be closed. How were the Dems in Congress supposed to know that he really wanted Gitmo closed, without him breathing down their necks? An Executive Order to close Gitmo; sounds vague and indecisive, doesn’t it?

    I’m sure it’s obvious to most, but I’m being sarcastic.

  3. JReid says:

    @BMull –
    Your comments are illogical. If the “buck stops with the president,” then by definition he cannot issue an executive order not knowing whether it will succeed. He presumes that, since the buck stops with himself, it cannot help but succeed. In your formulation, the president is all powerful and impotent at the same time.

    But then, for people in your camp, this president must be brought down, even if it has to be with illogic.

  4. gn says:

    @bmull, your comments are starting to read like straight up propaganda; your comment to this piece is 100% senseless and reflects a need to paint a negative picture of President Obama regardless of the facts. There are plenty of spaces which entertain this viewpoint; it is astounding to me that people feel the need to come to the far smaller pragmatic sites and post this drivel. I guess it’s not astounding considering the current troll swarm/lie tsunami in which we’re engulfed.

  5. bmull says:

    I’m tired of just hanging out at FDL where almost everyone agrees with me. I want to read some different viewpoints.

    In this case I don’t understand any of your criticisms. I didn’t say Obama is all powerful. What I said was it’s the responsibility of the President to know if his orders are unrealistic. Obama hadn’t done his homework. He didn’t know until April 2009 that less than 20 of the detainees were suitable for trial. He didn’t get buy-in from his own party to bring detainees to the U.S. So when it all fell apart, whose fault was it?

  6. FLo says:

    Oh yes, FDL, where if you don’t get your tax refund on time, it’s Obama’s fault.
    Although I don’t really disagree with you too much on this one, I don’t think we have to assign fault all the time; it didn’t work out and he’s the President. Holder’s frustration with Congress is illuminating.

  7. Walter Glass says:

    You guys should be glad bmull comes around, it inspires lively discussion. You’ve got to keep in mind that we all probably agree on upwards of 75% of major issues (if not more). I find myself coming back here because Ms. Reid is smart enough and absolutely right about enough stuff that I think it’s worth my time to let her know when I think she’s wrong.

    Obviously there’s a lot of blame to go around on Gitmo. Congress of course was completely worthless and put the administration in a tough spot, still it’s also clear that Obama missed some clear opportunities to push harder. I don’t doubt that Rahm played a major role in helping Congress box in Obama – remember when he outflanked Holder on torture prosecutions on the Sunday shows early in the administration? Still, Obama picked these people for his staff, he’s ultimately responsible.

    Marcy Wheeler had what I thought was a pretty great analysis of the WaPo piece (I know, FDL link, epistemic closure – fight it!) that lays out some possible scenarios given the timeline. And no, she doesn’t once in the piece call Obama the devil.

    http://emptywheel.firedoglake.com/2011/04/23/whos-afraid-of-the-big-bad-wolf/?utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=twitterfeed

  8. Walter Glass says:

    Come on, seriously, you should be glad bmull comes around here, it inspires lively discussion. You have to keep in mind we all probably agree on almost all basic substantive issues, the disagreements are relatively minor (although heated).

    For my part I find myself coming here because Ms. Reid is clearly smart enough and absolutely right about enough (your coverage of Florida labor busting last week was invaluable), that I feel like it’s worth my time to let her know when I think she’s wrong, even if I’m a dick about it.

    In this case obviously blame is in the eye of the beholder – Congress is obviously a pack of sniveling cowards, but I think Obama clearly missed some opportunities to push harder on this. I don’t doubt Rahm helped Congress box Obama in (remember when he publically did an end run on Holder on torture prosecutions?), but ultimately that was Obama’s hiring choice. And once Obama was presented with the fact that most detainees had either been tortured so much or were held on such flimsy evidence that most could not be tried, to create an indefinite detention regime is just inexcusably immoral. Perhaps it was a “pragmatic” choice, but ultimately it feels like an inflection point in a long curve towards lawless government.

  9. Walter Glass says:

    Whoa, sorry for the obnoxious double post, I thought the first one got rejected because of the link, so I rewrote. Feel free to delete whichever one is more annoying.

  10. Leo says:

    I really don’t like FDL very much. Have they come up with their Obama primary opponent yet or are they going with Johnson or Paul?

  11. @Walter Glass: No apology necessary. It happens.

    That said, when you stated, “…but I think Obama clearly missed some opportunities to push harder on this”, what, exactly, should the President have done?

    He could have pounded the bully pulpit with all his might, but it still would not have convinced Congress. I do not blame him for the failure to close Gitmo–I followed the series of events and realized that both the President and AG Holder did their best. Ultimately, though, the blame must shift to Congress, and also to the MSM for not bothering to get the facts straight.

    But kudos to you, though….you at least mentioned Congress. This POS screed from Salon couldn’t even bother….

    http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/04/25/obama_guantanamo_rhetoric/index.html

    And if you really want to punish your senses, read the comments.

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