To mark the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay prison to house "war on terror" detainees captured after 9/11, Truthout will republish a handful of exclusive reports by Jason Leopold about the facility.
A version of this report was originally published on Truthout on April 8, 2010.
The Bush administration deceived the American people about the certain danger posed by Guantanamo Bay detainees – the “worst of the worst” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called them – when many were simply innocent bystanders, according to a former top State Department official.
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, said President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld knew that many detainees had done nothing wrong but still kept them prisoner for political or PR reasons.
In a nine-page sworn declaration filed with a lawsuit by former Guantanamo detainee Adel Hassan Hamad, Wilkerson said Cheney, in particular, pursued a cynical strategy regarding the detainees in which “the ends justified the means” and assumed that “innocent people languishing in Guantanamo for years was justified by the broader war on terror.”
Wilkerson said he also learned during discussions with Powell that “President Bush was involved in all of the Guantanamo decision making” and that Cheney had mastered the art of manipulating his boss.
“My own view is that it was easy for Vice President Cheney to run circles around President Bush bureaucratically because Cheney had the network within the government to do so,” Wilkerson said. “Moreover, by exploiting what Secretary Powell called the President’s ‘cowboy instincts,’ Vice President Cheney could more often than not gain the President’s acquiescence.”
Wilkerson said Powell was drawn into the Guantanamo discussions because he was under pressure from foreign governments about their citizens who were believed to have been wrongfully detained.
During one meeting, Wilkerson said he learned that Pierre Prosper, US ambassador-at-large for war crimes and the point person on negotiating transfer of detainees to other countries, “would discuss the difficulty he encountered in dealing with the Department of Defense, and specifically Donald Rumsfeld, who just refused to let detainees go.”
Wilkerson came to conclude that “at least part of the problem was that it was politically impossible to release them [because] if they were released to another country, even an ally such as the United Kingdom, the leadership of the Defense Department would be left without any plausible explanation to the American people, whether the released detainee was subsequently found to be innocent by the receiving country, or whether the detainee was truly a terrorist and, upon release were it to then occur, would return to the war against the US.
“Another concern was that the detention efforts at Guantánamo would be revealed as the incredibly confused operation that they were. Such results were not acceptable to the Administration and would have been severely detrimental to the leadership at DOD.”
Left to Languish
So, Wilkerson said many of the original 742 detainees, who had been shipped to Guantanamo by late August 2002, were left to languish, though it was clear that many of them had been picked up in Afghanistan or another country with little due process and often because their local captors earned a $5,000-per-head bounty.
“The majority of them had never seen a US soldier in the process of their initial detention and their captivity had not been subjected to any meaningful review,” Wilkerson said. “A separate but related problem was that often absolutely no evidence relating to the detainee was turned over, so there was no real method of knowing why the prisoner had been detained in the first place. …
“It was clear to me that, as I learned about how the majority of the Guantánamo prisoners had been detained, the initial group of 742 detainees had not been detained under the processes I was used to as a military officer.
“It was also becoming more and more clear that many of the men were innocent, or at a minimum their guilt was impossible to determine let alone prove in any court of law, civilian or military. If there were any evidence, the chain protecting it had been completely ignored.”
Wilkerson blamed the “incompetent battlefield vetting” on the insufficient regular US Army troops sent to Afghanistan in the early days of the conflict. The Bush administration had decided to rely on a small number of US Special Operations Forces working with elements of the Afghan Northern Alliance.
The Special Forces didn’t have the manpower, the training nor the inclination to deal with the problem of assessing whether captives were enemy combatants or simply unlucky civilians who fell into the hands of local US allies, Wilkerson said, noting:
“We relied upon Afghans, such as General [Abdul Rashid] Dostum’s forces, and upon Pakistanis, to hand over prisoners whom they had apprehended, or who had been turned over to them for bounties, sometimes as much as $5,000 per head.
“Such practices meant that the likelihood was high that some of the Guantánamo detainees had been turned in to US forces in order to settle local scores, for tribal reasons, or just as a method of making money. I recall conversations with serving military officers at the time, who told me that many detainees were turned over for the wrong reasons, particularly for bounties and other incentives.”
Despite the uncertainties surrounding the captures, Wilkerson said the Bush administration viewed the detainees as not only potential sources of information about Al Qaeda but for evidence “on contacts between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and secret police forces in Iraq” that could help pave the way for the planned invasion in 2003.
The combination of the uncertainty about whether detainees actually knew anything and the harshness of their treatment set the stage for desperate captives to provide bad intelligence – saying whatever they thought their interrogators wanted to hear – which would then serve the Bush administration’s Iraq War aims.
That proved to be the case with alleged al-Qaeda captive, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who responded to threats of torture by claiming to know about an operational link between Hussein’s government and Al Qaeda. It was exactly the kind of information that the Bush administration had been seeking and was later cited to justify invading Iraq.
But it turned out to be wrong. In early 2004, al-Libi recanted his statements, claiming he had lied because of both actual and anticipated abuse, including threats that he would be sent to an intelligence service where he expected to be tortured.
Hyping the Danger
Senior Bush officials also exaggerated their certainty about the danger posed by Guantanamo detainees.
"If you think of the people down there, these are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield,” Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said in 2002, “they’re terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers…would-be suicide bombers." He called them "the worst of the worst."
Also in 2002, Vice President Cheney said Guantanamo prisoners “are the worst of a very bad lot” and “devoted to killing millions of Americans, innocent Americans, if they can, and they are perfectly prepared to die in the effort."
Wilkerson filed his declaration in support of a lawsuit by Adel Hassan Hamad, a 52-year-old former Guantanamo detainee who has sued Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Joints Chief of Staff Richard Myers, and a slew of other Bush administration officials.
Hamad alleges that he was arrested in his apartment in Pakistan in July 2002, rendered to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan for five months, where he says he was tortured, and then transferred to Guantanamo where he allegedly endured more torture at the hands of US military personnel.
“Mr. Hamad was not given notice of the basis for his detention until more than two years after first being detained, when a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) was convened in November 2004,” according to the federal lawsuit filed in Seattle last week. “Not until March 2005, nearly three full years after initially being detained, was Mr. Hamad officially labeled an ‘enemy combatant’ by the flawed CSRT process.
“However, this determination drew a rare dissenting opinion that acknowledged his enemy combatant status determination was unwarranted and as such, would have ‘unconscionable results.’ The basis for Mr. Hamad’s enemy combatant determination was simply because of his association as an employee of two organizations for whom he had done humanitarian and charity work (one of which he had left years before), and nothing more.
“In fact, a second CSRT was ordered for Mr. Hamad in November of 2007, one month before he was ultimately released to the Sudan. This was unusual, and indicates that the government recognized that the initial CSRT determination of Mr. Hamad was not accurate.”
The lawsuit cites a redacted copy of Hamad’s clearance decision saying that the Pentagon had cleared him for release in November 2005, though he was not freed from Guantanamo until December 2007, more than two years later.
Wilkerson said he was not personally familiar with Hamad’s detention, but rather was addressing the broader detainee issues that the Bush administration faced after 9/11.
“With respect to the assertions by Mr. Hamad that he was wrongfully seized and detained, it became apparent to me as early as August 2002, and probably earlier to other State Department personnel who were focused on these issues, that many of the prisoners detained at Guantánamo had been taken into custody without regard to whether they were truly enemy combatants, or in fact whether many of them were enemies at all,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson said he “made a personal choice to come forward and discuss the abuses that occurred because knowledge that I served in an Administration that tortured and abused those it detained at the facilities at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere and indefinitely detained the innocent for political reasons has marked a low point in my professional career and I wish to make the record clear on what occurred."
He added, “I am also extremely concerned that the Armed Forces of the United States, where I spent 31 years of my professional life, were deeply involved in these tragic mistakes. I am willing to testify in person regarding the content of this declaration, should that be necessary.”