Guantanamo files show shaky evidence

Many prisoners still ‘high risk’

Most of the most of the 172 prisoners left at Guantanamo Bay have been rated as a “high risk.’’ Most of the most of the 172 prisoners left at Guantanamo Bay have been rated as a “high risk.’’ (AFP/ Getty Images)
By Charlie Savage, William Glaberson, and Andrew W. Lehren
New York Times / April 25, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A trove of more than 700 classified military documents provides new and detailed accounts of the men who have done time at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and offers new insight into the evidence against the 172 still 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 makeshift experiment after the Sept. 11, 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 secret documents, made available to The New York Times and several other news organizations, 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.

The documents are largely silent about the use of the harsh interrogation tactics at Guantanamo — 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 administration of President Bush, provide a deeper look at the frightening, if flawed, intelligence that has persuaded President Obama’s administration, too, that the prison cannot readily be closed.

Prisoners who especially worried counterterrorism officials included some accused of being assassins for Al Qaeda, operatives for a canceled 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 Sheikh Mohammed, the planner of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

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 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. Guantanamo 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.

Obama administration officials condemned the publication of the classified documents, which were obtained by the antisecrecy 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 Guantanamo.

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.

Among the findings in the files:

■ The 20th hijacker: The best-documented case of an abusive interrogation at Guantanamo was the coercive questioning, in late 2002 and early 2003, of Mohammed al-Kahtani. A Saudi believed to have been an intended participant in the Sept. 11 attacks, Kahtani 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 US 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.’’

■ 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 USS Cole in 2000, says he was “more senior’’ in Al Qaeda than Khalid Sheikh 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 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 Guantanamo because of concerns over the stability of their country and its ability to monitor them.

■ A British agent: One report reveals that US 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 the CIA, after repeated interrogations of the detainee, concluded he had “withheld important information’’ from the British and Canadians, and assessed him “to be a threat’’ to US 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 Guantanamo 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 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 an Al Qaeda member. He was released in 2008 and returned to work for Al Jazeera.

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, Private First Class Bradley Manning, of leaking the materials.