Lawrence Wilkerson Tells The Truth About Guantánamo


As regular readers know, I don’t normally cross-post articles from other sites, but I’m making an exception for this guest column in the Washington Note by Lawrence Wilkerson, the Chief of Staff of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, because it addresses some crucial aspects of the Bush administration’s detention policy in the “War on Terror” that are not as widely known as they should be, and which echo some of the important issues that I’ve tried to raise in my book The Guantánamo Files and my subsequent writing.

The first of these is that, behind all the rhetoric about “the worst of the worst” — some of which continues to this day — the screening of those who ended up in US custody in Afghanistan, before their transfer to Guantánamo, was essentially non-existent, for a variety of reasons, including a lack of competent personnel, a disregard for what would happen when bounty payments were offered for “terror suspects” in some of the poorest parts of the world, and relentless pressure for “actionable intelligence” from senior figures within the administration, especially Donald Rumsfeld, who as Wilkerson notes, memorably, demanded that military personnel “just get the bastards to the interrogators.”

To this I would only add, as I have mentioned many times before, that the administration refused to allow the military to hold “competent tribunals” (aka battlefield tribunals), under Article 5 of the Geneva Conventions, which are used to separate soldiers from civilians seized by mistake (and whose use had been championed by the US military from Vietnam onwards), and also that, as a former interrogator in Afghanistan (writing under the name of Chris Mackey) noted in his book The Interrogators, the orders that came down from senior commanders overseeing prisoner lists in Camp Doha, Kuwait (with input from the Pentagon and the White House), were that every Arab was to be sent to Guantánamo, and that, until Guantánamo was almost full, every Afghan too. In addition, the tribunals used to assess the prisoners’ significance at Guantánamo — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals — were a sham, devoid of genuine intelligence and largely reliant on confessions extracted from other prisoners under unknown circumstances, so that, as a result, many of the 241 prisoners who are still at Guantánamo today have never been adequately screened to ascertain if they actually constitute a threat to the United States.

Wilkerson also writes about how “several in the US leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on,” but failed to act on it because of fears that, after the intelligence failures that led to the 9/11 attacks, they were unwilling to admit to further errors. He also correctly criticizes the over-use of the “mosaic philosophy” of intelligence, which posits that actionable truth emerges through the long, slow accumulation of tiny pieces of intelligence that eventually build up to create a useful picture, as a basis for holding and interrogating the majority of the prisoners rounded up through initial failures of intelligence, and criticizes the administration’s inability to catalog evidence, as revealed by both Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who worked on the tribunals at Guantánamo, and Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a former prosecutor in the Military Commission trial system, whose testimony I have covered extensively.

He also dismisses claims by former administration officials — especially Dick Cheney, whose recent scare-mongering interview is thoroughly lambasted — that useful intelligence was gained from Guantánamo (as David Rose also explained in an article three months ago in Vanity Fair, based on interviews with former CIA officials, and with Robert Mueller, the head of the FBI), and asserts that “no more than a dozen or two of the detainees” have any worthwhile intelligence — even less than the “35 to 50” described over the years by intelligence officials — adding that “even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.”

Finally, he defends Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, and John Bellinger, Legal Advisor to Condoleezza Rice, both as National Security Advisor and as Secretary of State, for their attempts to address the chronic failures of Guantánamo, and also defends attempts by his former boss, Colin Powell, and his deputy Richard Armitage, to address these same issues. This is, I think, the only point at which his arguments fail to stand up to scrutiny, as any of these significant figures should, if they had been agitated enough by the issues, have resigned and aired their complaints in public, but I must admit that I’m almost prepared to overlook these glosses in exchange for Wilkerson writing, in response to Cheney’s familiar, “Dark Side” warnings that “Protecting the country’s security is a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business,” and “These are evil people,” that “Cheney and his like are the evil people and we certainly are not going to prevail in the struggle with radical religion if we listen to people such as he.”

Some Truths About Guantánamo Bay by Lawrence Wilkerson

There are several dimensions to the debate over the US prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba that the media have largely missed and, thus, of which the American people are almost completely unaware. For that matter, few within the government who were not directly involved are aware either.

The first of these is the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the US operations there. Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation.

This was a factor of having too few troops in the combat zone, of the troops and civilians who were there having too few people trained and skilled in such vetting, and of the incredible pressure coming down from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others to “just get the bastards to the interrogators.”

It did not help that poor US policies such as bounty-hunting, a weak understanding of cultural tendencies, and an utter disregard for the fundamentals of jurisprudence prevailed as well (no blame in the latter realm should accrue to combat soldiers as this it not their bailiwick anyway).

The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the US leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.

But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers. They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantánamo Bay. Better to claim that everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released. I am very sorry to say that I believe there were uniformed military who aided and abetted these falsehoods, even at the highest levels of our armed forces.

The third basically unknown dimension is how hard Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage labored to ameliorate the GITMO situation from almost day one.

For example, Ambassador Pierre Prosper, the US envoy for war crimes issues, was under a barrage of questions and directions almost daily from Powell or Armitage to repatriate every detainee who could be repatriated.

This was quite a few of them, including Uighurs from China and, incredulously, citizens of the United Kingdom (“incredulously” because few doubted the capacity of the UK to detain and manage terrorists). Standing resolutely in Ambassador Prosper’s path was Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld who would have none of it. Rumsfeld was staunchly backed by the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney. Moreover, the fact that among the detainees was a 13 year-old boy and a man over 90 did not seem to faze either man, initially at least.

The fourth unknown is the ad hoc intelligence philosophy that was developed to justify keeping many of these people, called the mosaic philosophy. Simply stated, this philosophy held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance (this general philosophy, in an even cruder form, prevailed in Iraq as well, helping to produce the nightmare at Abu Ghraib). All that was necessary was to extract everything possible from him and others like him, assemble it all in a computer program, and then look for cross-connections and serendipitous incidentals — in short, to have sufficient information about a village, a region, or a group of individuals, that dots could be connected and terrorists or their plots could be identified.

Thus, as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees’ innocence was inconsequential. After all, they were ignorant peasants for the most part and mostly Muslim to boot.

Another unknown, a part of the fabric of the foregoing four, was the sheer incompetence involved in cataloging and maintaining the pertinent factors surrounding the detainees that might be relevant in any eventual legal proceedings, whether in an established court system or even in a kangaroo court that pretended to at least a few of the essentials, such as evidence.

Simply stated, even for those two dozen or so of the detainees who might well be hardcore terrorists, there was virtually no chain of custody, no disciplined handling of evidence, and no attention to the details that almost any court system would demand. Falling back on “sources and methods” and “intelligence secrets” became the Bush administration’s modus operandi to camouflage this grievous failing.

But their ultimate cover was that the struggle in which they were involved was war and in war those detained could be kept for the duration. And this war, by their own pronouncements, had no end. For political purposes, they knew it certainly had no end within their allotted four to eight years. Moreover, its not having an end, properly exploited, would help ensure their eight rather than four years in office.

In addition, it has never come to my attention in any persuasive way — from classified information or otherwise — that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.

This is perhaps the most astounding truth of all, carefully masked by men such as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney in their loud rhetoric — continuing even now in the case of Cheney — about future attacks thwarted, resurgent terrorists, the indisputable need for torture and harsh interrogation and for secret prisons and places such as GITMO.

Lastly, there is the now prevalent supposition, recently reinforced by the new team in the White House, that closing down our prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay would take some time and development of a highly complex plan. Because of the unfortunate political realities now involved — Cheney’s recent strident and almost unparalleled remarks about the dangers of pampering terrorists, and the vulnerability of the Democrats in general on any national security issue — this may have some truth to it.

But in terms of the physical and safe shutdown of the prison facilities it is nonsense. As early as 2004 and certainly in 2005, administration leaders such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, and John Bellinger, Legal Advisor to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and, later, to that same individual as Secretary of State, and others were calling for the facilities to be shut down. No one will ever convince me that as astute a man as Gordon England would have made such a call if he did not have a plan for answering it. And if there is not such a plan, is not its absence simply another reason to condemn this most incompetent of administrations? After all, President Bush himself said he would like to close GITMO.

Recently, in an attempt to mask some of these failings and to exacerbate and make even more difficult the challenge to the new Obama administration, former Vice President Cheney gave an interview from his home in McLean, Virginia. The interview was almost mystifying in its twisted logic and terrifying in its fear-mongering.

As to twisted logic: “Cheney said at least 61 of the inmates who were released from Guantánamo during the Bush administration … have gone back into the business of being terrorists.” So, the fact that the Bush administration was so incompetent that it released 61 terrorists is a valid criticism of the Obama administration? Or was this supposed to be an indication of what percentage of the still-detained men would likely turn to terrorism if released in future? Or was this a revelation that men kept in detention such as those at GITMO — even innocent men — would become terrorists if released because of the harsh treatment meted out to them at GITMO? Seven years in jail as an innocent man might do that for me. Hard to tell.

As for the fear-mongering: “When we get people who are more interested in reading the rights to an al-Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry,” Cheney said. Who in the Obama administration has insisted on reading any al-Qaeda terrorist his rights? More to the point, who in that administration is not interested in protecting the United States — a clear implication of Cheney’s remarks.

But far worse is the unmistakable stoking of the 20 million listeners of Rush Limbaugh, half of whom we could label, judiciously, as half-baked nuts. Such remarks as those of the former vice president’s are like waving a red flag in front of an incensed bull. And Cheney of course knows that.

Cheney went on to say in his McLean interview that “Protecting the country’s security is a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business. These are evil people and we are not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.” I have to agree but the other way around. Cheney and his like are the evil people and we certainly are not going to prevail in the struggle with radical religion if we listen to people such as he.

When — and if — the truths about the detainees at Guantánamo Bay will be revealed in the way they should be, or Congress will step up and shoulder some of the blame, or the new Obama administration will have the courage to follow through substantially on its campaign promises with respect to GITMO, torture and the like, remains indeed to be seen.

On that revelation and those actions rests much of the credibility of our nation’s return to sobriety and our truest values. In fact, on such positive developments may ultimately rest our entire future as a free people. For there shall inevitably be future terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda has been hurt, badly, largely by our military actions in Afghanistan and our careful and devastating moves to stymie its financial support networks.

But al-Qaeda will be back. Iraq, GITMO, Abu Ghraib, heavily-biased US support for Israel, and a host of other strategic errors have insured al-Qaeda’s resilience, staying power and motivation. How we deal with the future attacks of this organization and its cohorts could well seal our fate, for good or bad. Osama bin Laden and his brain trust, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are counting on us to produce the bad. With people such as Cheney assisting them, they are far more likely to succeed.

Lawrence B. Wilkerson was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and is chairman of the New America Foundation / US-Cuba 21st Century Policy Initiative.

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 see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

For more on Dick Cheney, see The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two).

10 Responses

  1. Connie L. Nash says...

    CCR Hearing: Michael Ratner on LIVE Webcast Friday, March 20 3:15-4:15 PM ET

  2. Frances Madeson says...

    Another important ingredient added to the alloy from which the key to unlock the cage will soon be forged.

  3. connie l. nash says...

    Another related to this post -JUST IN 7 PM ET March 19th

    Hard to gauge what’s really happening??? I look forward to your “read” on these news items today, Andy…

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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