Guantánamo: Establishing A Context For The Definitive Prisoner List

6.3.09

Since publishing the first definitive list of the 779 prisoners who have been held in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (available in four parts — Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4), I have received some wonderful feedback, but I have also been asked to consider the contributions made by other media outlets, which has led me to conclude that further analysis of the context in which the list was compiled might prove useful.

I am aware, of course, that the Washington Post compiled a ground-breaking list of prisoners in the four years before the Pentagon was forced to release the names and nationalities of the prisoners, when information was hard to come by, and I am also aware that, last December, the New York Times compiled an online database, The Guantánamo Docket, which features entries for every prisoner held at Guantánamo, including (where available) transcripts of the tribunals and review boards used to ascertain, to the Bush administration’s satisfaction, whether the prisoners had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” and whether they could be approved for release or transfer.

This was clearly a major undertaking, but I maintain that, without further detailed analysis, it fails to address the bigger picture, which involves establishing a context in which to test the validity of the government’s assertions.

We have, in recent years, accumulated a wealth of evidence establishing why the Bush administration’s unadorned assertions need careful scrutiny. Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who worked on the tribunals, has comprehensively demolished the credibility of the material used as evidence to justify holding the majority of the prisoners, as has an Air Force Major who also served on the tribunals. In addition, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a former prosecutor in the Military Commission trial system conceived by Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal counsel David Addington (the prime architects of the “War on Terror”), has done a similar job on the legitimacy of the Commissions, endorsing the views expressed over the years by numerous military defense lawyers, who, in some cases, have sacrificed their careers to oppose what they regarded as an unprecedented travesty of justice.

Lawyers for the prisoners have also made a significant contribution, revealing the prisoners’ shocking stories to the world after their accounts were, mysteriously, cleared by the Pentagon’s censors, and, in the last eight months, since the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights (reiterating an earlier ruling that was, they decided, overridden unconstitutionally by the Executive and Congress), judges have also played a significant role.

Since last June, judges in the Appeals Court and the District Court in Washington D.C. have thrown out the government’s cases against 17 Uighur prisoners (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province), five Bosnians of Algerian origin, and Mohammed El-Gharani, a Saudi resident and Chadian national. El-Gharani was just 14 years old when he was seized in a random raid on a mosque in Pakistan, sold to US forces, and then, like the men mentioned above, subjected not only to vile treatment, but also to allegations based on groundless or inadequate intelligence, or on confessions made by other prisoners whose credibility has been challenged by military and intelligence personnel. The allegations against the prisoners are littered with these kinds of dubious claims, and it is exactly for this reason that the available documents need to be examined with a critical eye.

Researchers who have been involved in this kind of detailed analysis include staff and students at the Seton Hall Law School, who have produced several reports based on the Pentagon’s own documents, beginning with a pioneering report in 2006 (PDF), which established that, according to the government’s own evidence against 517 of the prisoners, 86 percent were captured by the Northern Alliance or Pakistani forces, 55 percent were not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the US or its allies, and only 8 percent were alleged to have had any kind of affiliation with al-Qaeda.

In a similar vein, my research for The Guantánamo Files, and much of my subsequent reporting, was based on a comprehensive analysis of the Pentagon’s prisoner lists, the allegations against the prisoners, and the transcripts of the hearings, which allowed me to establish an instructive chronology, explaining who was captured where and when: whether in Afghanistan, crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan, or in Pakistan, for example, many hundreds of miles from the battlefields of Afghanistan. This then allowed me not only to present the prisoners’ stories in their own words, giving voices to the voiceless, but also to establish a necessary context for establishing which side was telling the truth: either the prisoners themselves, or the administration, which, as mentioned above, often mustered an array of transparently coerced or superficial evidence to justify its activities.

In addition, crucial research confirmed that many, if not the majority of the prisoners handed over by US allies were bought for bounty payments averaging $5000 a head, which encouraged a vast and unprincipled trade in Arabs who could be passed off as “al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects,” and also established that, in Afghanistan, before the prisoners were transferred to Guantánamo, the administration had, against the wishes of the military, refused to hold “competent tribunals” — also known as battlefield tribunals — under the Geneva Conventions relating to prisoners of war. Held close to the time and place of capture, and allowing battlefield prisoners the opportunity to call witnesses, these had, previously, been championed by the US military as a just and effective way of separating soldiers from civilians caught up in the fog of war, and in the first Gulf War, for example, the military held around 1200 battlefield tribunals, and decided, in three-quarters of the cases, that it had detained the wrong men.

My research was not an exact science, of course, but I remain convinced that it was — and is — the only manner in which to make sense of the bigger picture, and I remain disturbed by the fact that I was able to undertake this as a solitary independent journalist, and that no major media outlet devoted the required resources to investigating thoroughly the material that was made publicly available. As we have learned over the years — and are still, in many senses, establishing under a new President — the failure to thoroughly investigate the Bush administration’s supposed evidence against the prisoners in Guantánamo effectively allowed its hollow claims that they were “the worst of the worst” to go unchallenged.

Those interested in the truth should recall, as Jane Mayer explained in her book The Dark Side, that, in the summer of 2002, when John Bellinger, then the National Security Council’s top lawyer, was informed by a senior CIA analyst and by Guantánamo’s commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, that at least half the prisoners were there by mistake, his attempts to inform the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and to seek a review of the prisoners’ cases were thwarted when a scheduled meeting was hijacked by David Addington, who declared, imperiously, “No, there will be no review. The President has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

A version of this article was published on the Huffington Post and ZNet.

6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s an interesting exchange:

    Hi Andy
    It is frequently claimed that Bin Laden and co escaped from Tora Bora through the mountains due to a lack of adequate US resources on the ground to stop them. Also, the Guantánamo Bay prisoners are routinely described as being “the worst of the worst”. I presume that you are aware of the so-called “airlift of evil”:
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3340165
    My question is why there has not been more coverage given to the likelihood that the really hard core foreign fighters were flown out to freedom whilst the US turned a blind eye and any poor sods left behind must have been low level players? Obviously I understand why there would be little mainstream press coverage of this, but it seems to be something that the poor sods left in Guantánamo Bay could be making more of?
    Interested in hearing your thoughts.
    Regards,
    Chris Eggleston

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Chris,
    Good point. I mentioned it in my book — and found it quite shocking at the time — but I guess it hit a brick wall because it was part of the secrets of foreign policy i.e. part of the US being “played” by their Pakistani allies. For the record, bin Laden and senior al-Qaeda figures weren’t in Kunduz, of course, but their escape from Tora Bora was another US failure (although one that was more fully reported). Also, reports at the time stated that hard-core al-Qaeda fighters were shooting deserters in Kunduz and were desperate for martyrdom, so it seems probable that those who were airlifted were, in particular, Pakistani military and intel personnel who were aiding the Taliban, plus whoever could get on the escape vehicles.
    Best,
    Andy

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Andy
    Thanks for the reply.
    Re the US being “played” by the crafty Pakistanis, aren’t we past giving the US the benefit of the doubt that once again their $billion intelligence service got it pathetically wrong? We know the lengths the US has had to go to hide ISI funding of the alleged 911 terrorists – could they really have been caught out again so soon? Is it not more likely that the US had their own vested interest in ensuring that their (manufactured and funded) mujahideen mates were shuttled into Pakistan in order to carry on the farce of the “war against terror”? After all, if the Northern Alliance had been allowed to clean them all up properly who would be left for us westerners to be scared of?
    Am hugely impressed by the amount of work you have put into researching your book. As you can probably tell, I am very cynical of the threat that fundamentalist Muslims are supposed to pose to the free and right thinking western world (liquid bomb plotters with no passports etc.). Would love to hear your personal insight into how much is genuine threat and how much is just scaring the crap out of the tax payer.
    On another topic, great to see the mainstream press trumpeting “inside job” when it comes to evil Pakistan and the Sri Lankan cricketers, but the same concept dismissed as fantasy (and worse) when it comes to US/Britain/Australia potentially engaging in same.
    Regards, Chris.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Chris,
    I’m not sure. When I read Steve Coll’s excellent “Ghost Wars” — which I understand Obama has been reading! — the overriding impression was that a parade of unhinged old men had no idea how much they were being manipulated by their closest allies in the Middle East/Central Asia; namely, the Saudis and the Pakistanis. So, for example, all those billions of dollars of funding for the mujahideen in the ’80s were administered by the Pakistanis with little US oversight, and the result was that the virulently anti-American Gulbuddin Hekmatyar got the lion’s share, while Ahmed Shah Massoud got virtually nothing (as a quick aside, I do think that America’s failure to support Massoud changed the face of history. Clinton didn’t get it, and nor did George W. He only finally approved help and funding for Massoud on September 4, 2001, five days before Massoud was assassinated).
    So my feeling about the airlift is that it came directly from Pakistani pressure to get the generals and spooks out of Kunduz before a massacre took place, which I’m sure saved some key personnel from General Dostum’s Convoy of Death.

    As for the terror threat, well, yes, I believe it’s overblown, and that no one’s interests are served by having to trust the intelligence services without being able to challenge, in some meaningful way, the extent to which they’re genuinely capable, and the extent to which they’re paranoid. And of course, it’s horribly counter-productive — and morally corrosive — to react to a perceived threat by endorsing imprisonment without charge or trial, undermining the Convention Against Torture, implementing house arrest and the use of secret evidence and Special Advocates. I could go on, but essentially, here in the UK, we should have learned from the Irish conflict, and should be acutely aware that we’re repeating the same horrible mistakes.
    On every level, the true debate has been muddied, particularly, I think, by viewing all jihad as terrorism against the West, by viewing all training camps as being related to al-Qaeda, by accepting evidence obtained through torture as reliable, and by what I call “guilt by mosque”: a failure to comprehend that, in what are often liminal places where Muslim immigrants on the margins of British society gather, simply knowing people — or even flirting on the edges of discourse about violent jihad — is not the same thing as terrorism.
    Best,
    Andy
    Oh, and this is Seymour Hersh on the airlift (in Jan 02):
    http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/01/28/020128fa_FACT

  5. Frances Madeson says...

    Thank you for providing the context for the definitive prisoner list. For those of us who have been paying attention all along, with an ever increasing admiration and appreciation for your intellect and personal sacrifice, it is an important footnote. For the others, for whom an understanding of the scope of your achievement has not yet fully dawned, it highlights and underscores the value of your singular accomplishment. It was the road not traveled, possibly never to be traveled, until you put one foot in front of the other and traversed it, one incisive article at a time. These are not ephemeral footprints in the snow, sand or mud. The record is indelible and will endure in the annals of justice, or more to the point, injustice.

  6. Connie L. Nash says...

    ACTION suggestion: I just sent the URL to the last four columns here with their headings to 60 groups I regularly send items easily missed. Next, I plan to place the same in 60 more Blog/Website Comments. Third, I plan to “peddle” this material for free to legislators near and far by car, foot, bike, bus, plane perhaps and mail it all over the place.

    One action I’ve done with such material is to set-up an appointment with legislator- prepare a photo book with key sections & photographs and take the legislator through this look into the US inhumanity to others…step by step – finding the connections, how much is known by the hearer. Leaving the book and/or other items with the legislator or her staff.

    The time is perfect with this definitive list done!!! And also with Supreme Court acting on al-Marri’s case, etc. etc,…

    Of course, you will find your own perfect action. Thanx so much to Andy & the others who’ve made our Actions so much easier!!!

    Connie L. Nash

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