The Wrong Targets

The Wrong Targets
June 16th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: The Wrong Targets

The Wrong Targets
Miami Herald
June 15, 2008
Pg. 1
Guantanamo: Beyond The Law
A McClatchy Newspapers investigation found that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of 'terrorist suspects' were held by the U.S. military based on weak or fabricated evidence, personal scores or bounty payments
By Tom Lasseter
First of an exclusive series.
GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- The militants crept up behind Mohammed Akhtiar as he squatted at the spigot to wash his hands before evening prayers at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. They shouted, ``Allahu Akbar'' -- God is great -- as one of them hefted a metal mop squeezer into the air, slammed it into Akhtiar's head and sent thick streams of blood running down his face.
Akhtiar was among the more than 770 terrorism suspects imprisoned at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They are the men the Bush administration described as ``the worst of the worst.''
But Akhtiar was no terrorist. American troops dragged him out of his home in Afghanistan in 2003 and held him for three years at Guantánamo, believing that he was an insurgent involved in rocket attacks on U.S. forces.
However, the Islamic radicals in Guantánamo's Camp Four who hissed ''infidel'' and spat at Akhtiar knew that the U.S. government had the wrong man.
An eight-month McClatchy investigation in 11 countries on three continents found that Akhtiar was one of dozens of men -- some officials say hundreds -- whom the United States has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, personal scores or bounty payments.
''He was not an enemy of the government; he was a friend of the government,'' a senior Afghan intelligence officer told McClatchy Newspapers. Akhtiar was imprisoned at Guantánamo on the basis of false information that local insurgents fed to U.S. troops, the officer said.
McClatchy interviewed 66 released detainees, more than a dozen local officials -- primarily in Afghanistan -- and U.S. officials with intimate knowledge of the program. Thousands of pages of U.S. military tribunal documents and records were reviewed.
This unprecedented compilation shows that most of the 66 were low-level Taliban grunts, innocent Afghan villagers or ordinary criminals. At least seven had been working for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and had no ties to militants, according to Afghan local officials. In effect, many of the detainees posed no danger to the United States or its allies.
The investigation also found that despite the uncertainty about whom they were holding, U.S. soldiers beat and abused many prisoners.
The McClatchy reporting also documented how U.S. detention policies fueled support for extremist Islamist groups. For some detainees who went home far more militant than when they arrived, Guantánamo had become a school for jihad, or Islamic holy war.
Of course, Guantánamo also houses Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, who along with four other high-profile detainees faces military commission charges. Cases have also been opened against 15 other detainees for assorted offenses, such as attending al Qaeda training camps.
But because the Bush administration set up Guantánamo to allow indefinite detention without charges or federal court challenge, it's impossible to know how many of the 770 who have been held there were terrorists.
The administration's attempts to keep the detainees beyond the law came crashing down last week.
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that detainees have the right to contest their cases in federal courts, and that a 2006 act of Congress forbidding them to do so was unconstitutional. ''Some of these petitioners have been in custody for six years with no definitive judicial determination as to the legality of their detention,'' the court said in its 5-4 decision, overturning Bush administration policy and two acts of Congress that codified it.
McClatchy's interviews are the most ever conducted with former detainees by a U.S. news organization.
McClatchy also in many cases did more research than either the U.S. military at Guantánamo, which often relied on secondhand accounts, or the detainees' lawyers, who relied mainly on the detainees' accounts.
The investigation found that although U.S. forces often didn't know whom they were holding or how to obtain credible intelligence from them without enough trained interrogators and skilled linguists, prisoners were beaten and abused by military police, prison guards and intelligence officers.
Prisoner abuse became a regular feature in cellblocks and interrogation rooms at the Bagram and Kandahar air bases, the two main way stations in Afghanistan en route to Guantánamo.
Akhtiar said that while he was held at Bagram Air Base, 'when I had a dispute with the interrogator, when I asked, `What is my crime?' the soldiers who took me back to my cell would throw me down the stairs.''
White House directives placed ''suspected enemy combatants'' beyond the reach of U.S. law or the 1949 Geneva Conventions' protections for prisoners of war.
''The policy and legal decisions at the top probably made instances of abuse more likely,'' one former administration official said. ``My sense is that decisions taken at the top probably sent a signal that the old rules don't apply. . . . Certainly some people read what was coming out of Washington: The gloves are off; this isn't a Geneva world anymore.''
Like many others who previously worked in the White House or Defense Department, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the legal and political sensitivities of the issue.
Instead of making the United States safer, the administration's detainee policies have radicalized detainees, fueled support for extremist Islamist groups, troubled even America's closest allies, and turned Guantánamo into a school for jihad, Islamic holy war.
The administration may even have inadvertently sabotaged its ability to prosecute the terrorists it has imprisoned because evidence gained from interrogations that in some cases bordered on torture may not be admissible in military courts.
War on Terrorism: Some detainees had no intelligence value
The McClatchy investigation found that top Bush administration officials knew within months of opening the Guantánamo detention center that many of the prisoners there were not ''the worst of the worst.'' From the moment Guantánamo opened in early 2002, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White said, it was obvious that at least a third of the population didn't belong there.
Of 66 detainees McClatchy interviewed, evidence indicates that 34 of them, about 52 percent, had links to militant groups or activities. At least 23 of those 34, however, were Taliban foot soldiers, conscripts, volunteers or adventure-seekers who knew nothing about global terrorism.
Only seven of the 66 were in positions to have had any ties to al Qaeda's leadership, and it isn't clear that any of them knew any terrorists of consequence.
If the former detainees McClatchy interviewed are any indication -- and former high-ranking U.S. administration and defense officials said in interviews that they are -- most of the prisoners at Guantánamo were not terrorist masterminds but men with no intelligence value in the war on terrorism.
Far from being an ally of the Taliban, Mohammed Akhtiar had fled to Pakistan shortly after the puritanical Islamist group took power in 1996, the senior Afghan intelligence officer told McClatchy. The Taliban burned down Akhtiar's house after he refused to ally his tribe with their government.
The Americans detained Akhtiar, the intelligence officer said, because they were given bad information by another Afghan who had harbored a personal vendetta against Akhtiar going back to his time as a commander against the Soviet military during the 1980s.
''In some of these cases, tribal feuds and political feuds have played a big role'' in people getting sent to Guantánamo, the officer said.
He didn't want his name used, because he didn't want to offend Western officials he works with and because Afghan intelligence officers are assassinated regularly.
''There were Afghans being sent to Guantánamo because of bad intelligence,'' said Helaluddin Helal, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister for security from 2002 to early 2004. ``In the beginning, everyone was trying to give intelligence to the Americans. . . . The Americans were taking action without checking this information.''
Nusrat Khan was in his 70s when American troops shoved him into an isolation cell at Bagram in spring 2003. They put a blindfold and earphones on him and tied his hands behind his back for almost four weeks, Khan said.
By the time he was taken out of the cell, Khan -- who'd had at least two strokes years before he was arrested and was barely able to walk -- was half-mad and couldn't stand without help. Khan said he was taken to Guantánamo on a stretcher.
Several Afghan officials, including the country's attorney general, later said that Khan, who spent more than three years at Guantánamo, wasn't a threat to anyone; he had been turned in as an insurgent leader because of decades-old rivalries with competing Afghan militias.
Ghalib Hassan was an Interior Ministry-appointed district commander in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province who had risked his life to help the U.S.-backed government. Din Mohammed, former governor of that province and now governor of Kabul, said there was no question that tribal leaders, offended by Hassan's brusque style, fed false information to troops' informants.
A Written Statement: Pentagon officials said no to interviews
The Pentagon declined requests to make top officials, including the secretary of defense, available to respond to McClatchy's findings. The defense official in charge of detainee affairs, Sandra Hodgkinson, refused to comment.
The Pentagon's only response to written questions from McClatchy, and to a list of 63 of the 66 former detainees interviewed for this report, was a three-paragraph statement.
''These unlawful combatants have provided valuable information in the struggle to protect the U.S. public from an enemy bent on murder of innocent civilians,'' Col. Gary Keck said in the statement. He provided no examples.
Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, until recently the commanding officer at Guantánamo, said that detainees had supplied crucial information about al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
''Included with the folks that were brought here in 2002 were, by and large, the main leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban,'' he said in a phone interview.
Buzby agreed, however, that some detainees were from the bottom rung: ``It's all about developing the mosaic. . . . There's value to both ends of the spectrum.''
Former senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials, however, said McClatchy's conclusions squared with their own observations.
''As far as intelligence value from those in Gitmo, I got tired of telling the people writing reports based on their interrogations that their material was essentially worthless,'' a U.S. intelligence officer said in an e-mail, using slang for Guantánamo.
Enemy Combatants: Many detainees were `swept up in the pot'
At a Pentagon briefing in 2002, a senior Army officer expressed doubt about the entire intelligence process.
''He said that we're not getting anything, and his thought was that we're not getting anything because there might not be anything to get,'' said Donald J. Guter, a retired rear admiral who was the head of the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps at the time.
Many detainees were ''swept up in the pot'' by large operations conducted by Afghan troops allied with the Americans, said former Army Secretary White.
One of the Afghan detainees at Guantánamo, White recalled, was more than 80 years old.
Army Spc. Eric Barclais, a military intelligence interrogator at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, told investigators in sworn testimony: ``We recommended lots of folks be released from [Bagram], but they were not. I believe some people ended up at [Guantánamo] that had no business being sent there.''
''You have to understand some folks were detained because they got turned in by neighbors or family members who were feuding with them,'' Barclais said. ``Yes, they had weapons. Everyone had weapons. Some were Soviet-era and could not even be fired.''
A former Pentagon official told McClatchy that he was shocked at times by the background of men at Guantánamo. ''The screening, the understanding of who we had, was horrible,'' he said. ``That's why we had so many useless people at Gitmo.''
In 2002, a CIA analyst interviewed several dozen detainees at Guantánamo and reported to senior National Security Council officials that many of them didn't belong there, a former White House official said.
Despite the analyst's findings, the administration made no further review of detainees. The White House had determined that all of them were enemy combatants, the former official said.
'War Council': Government lawyers set legal standards
Rather than taking a closer look at whom they were holding, a group of five White House, Justice Department and Pentagon lawyers who called themselves the ''War Council'' devised a legal framework that enabled the administration to detain suspected ''enemy combatants'' indefinitely with few legal rights.
The threat of new terrorist attacks, the War Council argued, allowed President Bush to disregard or rewrite American law, international treaties and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to permit unlimited detentions and harsh interrogations.
The group further argued that detainees had no legal right to defend themselves, and that American soldiers -- along with War Council members, their bosses and Bush -- should be shielded from prosecution for actions that many call war crimes.
With the support of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the group shunted aside the military justice system, and in February 2002, Bush suspended the legal protection for detainees spelled out in the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, which outlaws degrading treatment and torture.
The administration didn't launch a formal review of the detentions until a 2004 Supreme Court decision forced it to begin holding military tribunals at Guantánamo. The Supreme Court ruling last week said the tribunals were deeply flawed, but didn't end them.
In 2004, Pentagon officials decided to restrict further interrogations to detainees who were considered ''high value'' for their suspected knowledge of terrorist groups or their potential of returning to the battlefield, said Matthew Waxman, who was Defense's head official for detainee matters from August 2004 to December 2005.
''Maybe three-quarters of the detainees by 2005 were no longer regularly interrogated,'' said Waxman, who is now a law professor at Columbia University.
At that time, about 500 were still at Guantánamo.
So far, the military commissions have publicly charged only six detainees with direct involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those cases are now in question after the high court's ruling Thursday.
About 500 detainees have been released.
During a military review board hearing at Guantánamo, Mohammed Akhtiar had some advice for the U.S. officers seated before him.
''I wish,'' he said, ``that the United States would realize who the bad guys are and who the good guys are.''

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