In the summer of 2002, as Jane Mayer described it in her book The Dark Side, “The CIA, concerned by the paucity of valuable information emanating from [Guantánamo], dispatched a senior intelligence analyst, who was fluent in Arabic and expert on Islamic extremism, to find out what the problem was.” After interviewing a random sample of two dozen or so Arabic-speaking prisoners, the analyst “concluded that an estimated one-third of the prison camp’s population of more than 600 captives at the time, meaning more than 200 individuals, had no connection to terrorism whatsoever.”
The analyst expressed his concerns to Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, Guantánamo’s senior military commander, and “was further disconcerted to learn that the general agreed with him that easily a third of the Guantánamo detainees were mistakes.” “Later,” Mayer added, “Dunlavey raised his estimate to fully half the population.”
Dunlavey didn’t explain what he believed about the other half of the prison’s population, but in 2006 a team at the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey analyzed the publicly available information about 517 prisoners, which had been released by the Pentagon, and discovered that, according to their own records, which explained the circumstances of the prisoners’ capture and described their purported connections to al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban, only 8 percent were alleged to have had any kind of affiliation with al-Qaeda, 55 percent were not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the US or its allies, and the rest, as Mayer put it, “were charged with dubious wrongdoing, including having tried to flee US bombs.” She added, “The overwhelming majority — all but 5 percent — had been captured by non-US players, many of whom were bounty hunters.”
Analyzing this information, and bearing in mind that, at the time the Seton Hall team compiled its report, records did not exist for 200 other prisoners because they had already been released, the stark conclusion is that, according to the Pentagon’s own findings, only around 40 of the prisoners were alleged to have had any connection with al-Qaeda, and the rest were either innocent men, Afghan Taliban recruits, or foreigners recruited to help the Taliban fight an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the 9/11 attacks, and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or international terrorism.
In 2002, after the CIA analyst completed his survey of the Guantánamo prisoners, he wrote a report about what he had discovered. As Mayer described it, “He mentioned specific detainees by name, so there was no confusion about whom the United States was wrongly holding. He made clear that he believed that the United States was committing war crimes by holding and questioning innocent people in such inhumane ways.”
His report soon reached John Bellinger, legal counsel to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. “Immediately distressed,” as Mayer put it, Bellinger convened a meeting with the analyst, attended by Gen. John Gordon, the National Security Council’s senior terrorism expert (and a former Deputy Director of the CIA), and the two men then approached White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to discuss the report’s significance.
When they went to meet Gonzales, however, they found him flanked by David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Legal Counsel, and Timothy Flanigan, a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office. “Neither had any official national security role,” Mayer wrote, “and no one had warned Bellinger that they would be there. But they did all the talking.”
According to two sources who told Mayer about the meeting, Addington dismissed Bellinger’s concerns by declaring, imperiously, “No, there will be no review. The President has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it!” After Bellinger fired back, pointing out that this was “a violation of basic notions of American fairness,” Addington replied, “We are not second-guessing the President’s decision. These are ‘enemy combatants.’ Please us that phrase. They’ve all been through a screening process. There’s nothing to talk about.” Mayer added, “The President had made a group-status identification, as far as he was concerned. To Addington, it was a matter of presidential power, not a question of individual guilt or innocence.”
How Cheney and Addington destroyed all notions of justice
I hope Jane Mayer — and her publishers — will forgive me for quoting at length from her book, but these passages — plus the research undertaken by the Seton Hall Law School, and, I believe, my own research for my book The Guantánamo Files, and the many hundreds of articles I have written in the last two years — should demonstrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the administration’s claim that its “War on Terror” prisoners were so exceptionally dangerous that they should be treated neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects, entitled to the protections of the US legal system, was hyperbole of the most reckless and damaging kind.
Far from being a prison for “the worst of the worst,” Guantánamo was, in fact, nothing more than a chaotic assemblage of largely random prisoners, mostly bought from the US military’s opportunistic allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or from villagers and townspeople desperate for the bounty payments for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects,” averaging $5,000 a head, which were advertised on leaflets dropped from planes. These stated, “You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life — pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”
In addition, and contrary to Addington’s claims, none of the prisoners had been through a screening process at all. In all previous wars since Vietnam, the US military had held “competent tribunals” under Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions. These involved screening prisoners close to the time and place of capture, to ascertain whether they were combatants or civilians caught up in the fog of war, and during the first Gulf War, for example, the military held around 1,200 of these tribunals, and in three-quarters of the cases the prisoners were sent home. In the “War on Terror,” however, the competent tribunals were ruled out, and, in fact, the orders that came down from on high stipulated that every single Arab who came into US custody was to be transferred to Guantánamo.
Once in Guantánamo, there was no improvement. It was not until June 2004 that the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights, and even when this happened the government responded not by allowing the prisoners to challenge the basis of their unexplained detention in a US court, as the Supreme Court intended, but by introducing the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. A mockery of the Article 5 competent tribunals — given that the military knew almost nothing about the majority of the men in its custody — the tribunals drew largely on confessions made through the use of torture, coercion or bribery, or “generic” information that had nothing to do with the prisoners. In addition, as was explained by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who worked on the tribunals, they were, essentially, designed not to ascertain whether the prisoners had been seized by mistake, but to rubberstamp their designation, on capture, as “enemy combatants” who could be held without charge or trial.
As a result, Mayer’s description of David Addington’s response to the complaints aired by John Bellinger should also confirm that this sinister experiment in arbitrary detention and interrogation — which involved the US not only tearing up the Geneva Conventions and the Army Field Manual, but also attempting to circumvent the anti-torture statute — was based on an arrogant presumption that the President was above the law, that “innocence” and “guilt” were irrelevant constructs, and that it was justifiable to hold any number of prisoners forever, and to interrogate them as often and as coercively as the government wished.
This was done in order to build up a “mosaic” of intelligence not just about the small group of men responsible for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 (and the previous attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000), but also about Afghan resistance to the US presence in Afghanistan, about every single Muslim resistance group around the world (whether “terrorists” or not), and — from exotic captives like the handful of Russians who were seized, or the 17 Uighurs (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, who had fled persecution in their homeland, and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban) — about the activities of their own governments.
Fearmongering, cowardice and terrible policy decisions
I mention all these facts at this particular time because the last few weeks have seen a torrent of scaremongering, misinformation and woefully misguided policy proposals pour forth from the nation’s politicians — and the President — with regard to Guantánamo, and I believe it is important to set the record straight.
First, up were Republicans, inspired, no doubt, by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appears to be on an endless “Torture Tour,” touting lies about the efficacy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in keeping the nation safe, and failing to mention how he used torture to produce lies to justify the invasion of Iraq. In a movement that rapidly snowballed, Senators and Representatives from across the country repeated unsubstantiated lies about the dangers posed by the prisoners in Guantánamo, and sounded fearful warnings about the implications of moving any of them to prisons on the US mainland.
By Wednesday this revival of cowardice and fear had swept up an alarming number of Democrat politicians, and when it came to funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, politicians of both parties happily approved a budget of $91 billion, but refused to give the President the $80 million he had requested for the closure of Guantánamo.
On Thursday, Obama regained some of this lost ground. In a speech in which he made it clear that he was doing his best to clear up the “mess” left by his predecessors, he chastised the fearmongers for muddying a genuine debate about how to proceed. However, Obama too demonstrated that he has been infected by what he described as the Bush administration’s “season of fear,” by proposing that the prisoners at Guantánamo who will not be freed will either be tried in federal courts, put forward for trial in an amended version of the failed Military Commissions introduced by Dick Cheney and David Addington, or subjected to “preventive detention.”
I have no problem with the first of these proposals, and was encouraged that, on the same day, the Justice Department announced that a former “high-value detainee” at Guantánamo, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, would be tried in a New York court for his alleged participation in the 1998 African embassy bombings. However, I was disturbed that the President thought it worth proposing Military Commissions as a possible parallel path (given that no sticking plaster can disguise how corrupt the whole process was under the Bush administration), and completely dismayed that he could contemplate introducing a form of “preventive detention,” and was advocating legitimizing the Guantánamo regime (which is, of course, a form of “preventive detention”) for use on prisoners against whom no case can be brought because the supposed evidence will not stand up to independent scrutiny — meaning, of course, that it is tainted by torture or other forms of coercion, and is therefore not evidence at all.
A global witch hunt
At the start of this article, I presented some dark truths about Guantánamo in the hope that the account would demonstrate why the prison must be closed, and why few of the 240 men still held — perhaps 10 percent, perhaps a little more — represent a threat to the United States. In conclusion, if you’d like a few final, shocking facts about the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” consider what David Addington, acting as the mouthpiece of the de facto President, Dick Cheney, was really doing when he dismissed John Bellinger’s complaints in the fall of 2002.
Far from just defending a detention policy that, with the blessing of Congress, had filled the cell blocks at Guantánamo (on the basis that the Authorization For Use Of Military Force, passed in the first week after the 9/11 attacks, authorized the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”), Addington was also defending the expansion and extension of this policy around the world. Taking into account the prisoners held in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those subjected to “extraordinary rendition,” the total number of prisoners held at Guantánamo actually makes up less than 1 percent of the total number of prisoners (at least 80,000 between 2001 and 2005, according to figures released by the Pentagon), who have been held at some point in the “War on Terror,” without either the effective protection of the Geneva Conventions or the protections of the US criminal justice system.
This was, if I may be blunt, a witch hunt on the most colossal scale, but I hope these statistics also help to explain why every facet of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” needs dismantling, so that only two categories of prisoner are allowed in future: prisoners of war, seized in wartime and protected by the Geneva Conventions, and terrorists, to be treated as criminal suspects and put forward for trial in federal courts.
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, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.
See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), The US military’s shameless propaganda over 9/11 trials (April 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Four more charged, including Binyam Mohamed (June 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).
And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials (June 2009).
[…] not even seized by US forces, but were seized by their Afghan and Pakistani allies at a time when substantial bounty payments for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects” were […]
[…] the children or geriatrics exposed in the classified documents released by WikiLeaks, swept up when all screening and safeguards are discarded, as they were in Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in October 2001. Nor are they the farmers […]
[…] in the classified documents released by WikiLeaks, swept up when all screening and safeguards are discarded, as they were in Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in October 2001, Nor are they the farmers […]
[…] not even seized by US forces, but were seized by their Afghan and Pakistani allies at a time when substantial bounty payments for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects” were […]
[…] capture — largely at the hands of the US military’s Afghan and Pakistani allies, at a time when bounty payments were widespread — sound less chaotic than it actually was, and it also disguised the kind of treatment to which […]
[…] competent tribunals, and this, combined with the appalling incentives for dishonesty produced by offering substantial bounty payments for anyone who could be dressed up as al-Qaeda or the Taliban by America’s allies in Afghanistan […]
[…] noted by Maj. Gen, Michael Dunlavey, a commander of the prison in 2002. Contributing to this was the decision to offer substantial bounty payments for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects to the US military’s Afghan and Pakistani allies, and as a […]
[…] worst of the worst,” but in reality a brutal and failed experiment, which never held more than a small number of genuine terror suspects, but, which, nonetheless, has proved resistant to calls for its […]
[…] Andy Worthington has written, a chaotic assemblage of prisoners was handed to the U.S. military from Afghanistan and Pakistan as […]
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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