By William Fisher
In 2002, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld famously referred to Guantanamo prisoners as “the worst of the worst”.
As recently as June 2005, he said, despite massive and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, "If you think of the people down there, these are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield. They're terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers, [Osama bin Laden's] bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers, probably the 20th 9/11 hijacker."
And Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chimed in, “They were so vicious, if given the chance they would gnaw through the hydraulic lines of a C-17 while they were being flown to Cuba.”
"These are the people that don't know any moral values," he said, adding that
” the threat they pose is real -- at least 12 former detainees have been killed or captured on the battlefield after their release.”
If that be true, how do we explain why, of the approximately 760 prisoners brought to Guantanamo since 2002, the military has previously released 180 and transferred 76 to the custody of other countries.
Or why it is now proposing to release 141 more prisoners -- about a third of those still left at GITMO? Have they been rehabilitated?
No, the Pentagon says they no longer have any further intelligence value.
So they were “the worst of the worst”, but they have now told us everything we wanted to know, so we are letting them go, presumably to terrorize us another day?
Or is it that the military doesn’t have enough on these people to try them, even before its own tribunals, which have a much lower threshold of evidence than our courts?
Or is it that it we are planning to turn some of these released prisoners over to law enforcement authorities in their home countries? A kind of slightly more transparent rendition.
Or is it that the military simply can’t abide the idea of admitting that it, too, makes mistakes?
There may be some truth in all of the above. Yet, the Bush Administration seems hell-bent on continuing to shoot itself in the foot by clinging to the fading perception of its own hundred per cent righteousness.
Many of the Pentagon’s “mistakes” have been held for close to five years, without charges and without trials. Some were not captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan, but kidnapped off the streets of Europe and various locations in the Middle East. Many were “sold” to U.S. authorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan for bounties. It is clear that many others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, the fiercely nonpartisan National Journal magazine reported, “Notwithstanding Rumsfeld's description, the majority of (Guantanamo prisoners) was not caught by American soldiers on the battlefield. They came into American custody from third parties, mostly from Pakistan, some after targeted raids there, most after a dragnet for Arabs after 9/11.”
Nevertheless, all were categorized as “enemy combatants” with ties to the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or other groups that support terrorism. The Pentagon undoubtedly has evidence that some of the prisoners at Guantanamo were Al-Qaeda operatives out to kill as many Americans as possible. But in many other cases, the “evidence” is based on second, third and fourth-hand hearsay. In still others, it is clear that admissions of guilt have been obtained through cruel and inhumane interrogations that many say amount to torture.
Examples of Pentagon mistakes are not difficult to find. For example:
There is a man named Saddiq who has been behind razor wire for more than four years. In a rare display of candor, the military acknowledged last year
that he was not an enemy combatant. But he remains imprisoned. His lawyer says his opposition to Osama bin Laden makes him too hot to handle in his native Saudi Arabia.
Then there are the Chinese Uighur Muslims who had fled persecution in China, some of who are still being held at Guantanamo, officially because they would not be safe if returned to their native country.
Then there are the “Bosnian Six” -- six Algerians seized in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002 and flown to Guantanamo after the Bosnian Supreme Court dismissed charges against them of plotting to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.
Said one of them: "I've been here for three years and these accusations were just told to me…Nobody or any interrogator ever mentioned any of these accusations you are talking about now. Not even one mentioned the embassy thing, the terrorist organization, the Algerian Islamic organization. It's weird how this just came up now."
Then there are at least three children, ages 13 to 15.
Then there is the Casio watch caper reported by the fiercely nonpartisan National Journal. According to the Defense Department’s own files, a watch worn by one prisoner was similar to another Casio model that has a circuit board that Al Qaeda used for making bombs. The United States is using the Qaeda-favored Casio wristwatch as evidence against at least nine detainees. But the offending model is sold in sidewalk stands around the world. And the detainee’s Casio model hasn't been manufactured for years.
Then there is Murat Kurnaz, a Turk the government plucked off a bus in Pakistan and subsequently accused of being friends with a suicide bomber. The government did not tell Kurnaz's tribunal that his friend is alive and therefore could not be the referenced suicide bomber. In January 2005, a federal judge singled out Kurnaz's case as evidence of the lack of due process in the Guantanamo tribunals. The judge said that his tribunal had ignored exculpatory evidence and relied instead on a single anonymous memo that was not credible.
Then there are the British men who were detained for nearly three years and who have sued the U.S. government, alleging torture and other human rights violations. In a 115-page dossier, the men allege that they were beaten, stripped, shackled and deprived of sleep during their detention. They charge that guards threw prisoners’ Korans into toilets and attempted to force them to give up their religious faith. There say detainees were forcibly injected with unidentified drugs and intimidated with military dogs. And they claim they were subjected to abuse and beatings during their detention.
Each said they eventually gave false confessions that they appeared in a video with al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, one of the September 11 hijackers, despite the fact that they could prove they were in Britain when the video was made.
After they were freed last March, the men were questioned by British police but quickly released without charge.
These are just a few of the Pentagon’s mistakes – much of the evidence coming from the Defense Department’s own files.
Not even the CIA bought into Rumsfeld’s “worst of the worst” riff. Michael Scheuer, who headed the agency's bin Laden unit through 1999 and resigned in 2004, said, ”By the fall of 2002, it was common knowledge around CIA circles that fewer than 10 percent of Guantanamo's prisoners were high-value terrorist operatives…Most of the men were probably foot soldiers at best” who were "going to know absolutely nothing about terrorism."
Presumably, these are the 141 prisoners now being released.
Those who remain will be judged through a legal process that most lawyers familiar with military prosecutions say ignores the due process protections found in, say, garden-variety courts martial.
But, if past is prologue, the Pentagon – and the President – will continue to defend the indefensible.