Little or no threat, dozens or more men were imprisoned at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp on the basis of revenge, bounty payments, or fabricated evidence.
First of five parts
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 slammed a metal mop squeezer into Akhtiar’s head and sent blood down his face.
Akhtiar was among more than 770 terrorism suspects imprisoned at the U.S. naval base in Cuba after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Bush administration has described these men as “the worst of the worst.”
But Akhtiar was no terrorist. U.S. troops had dragged him out of his Afghanistan home in 2003 and held him in Guantánamo for three years in the belief that he was an insurgent involved in rocket attacks on U.S. forces.
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The Islamic radicals who hissed “infidel” and spat at Akhtiar knew something his captors didn’t: The U.S. government had the wrong guy.
“He was not an enemy of the government; he was a friend of the government,” a senior Afghan intelligence officer said. Akhtiar was imprisoned on the basis of false information that anti-government insurgents fed to U.S. troops, he said.
An eight-month McClatchy Newspapers investigation in 11 countries on three continents has found that Akhtiar was one of dozens of men — and, according to several officials, perhaps hundreds — whom the United States has imprisoned wrongfully in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments.
McClatchy interviewed 66 released detainees, more than a dozen local officials — primarily in Afghanistan — and U.S. officials with intimate knowledge of the detention program. The investigation also reviewed thousands of pages of U.S. military-tribunal documents and other records.
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 reporting also documented how U.S. detention policies fueled support for extremist Islamist groups. Some detainees went home far more militant than when they arrived.
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 also have been opened against 15 other detainees for assorted offenses, such as attending al-Qaida training camps.
But because the Bush administration set up Guantánamo under special rules that allowed indefinite detention without charges or federal court challenge, it’s impossible to know how many of the 770 men who have been held there were terrorists.
A series of White House directives placed “suspected enemy combatants” beyond the reach of U.S. law or the 1949 Geneva Conventions’ protections for prisoners of war. President Bush and Congress then passed legislation that protected those detention rules.
However, the administration’s attempts to keep the detainees beyond the law came crashing down Thursday, when the Supreme Court ruled that detainees have the right to contest their cases in federal courts, and that a 2006 act of Congress forbidding them from doing 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.
One former administration official said the White House’s initial policy and legal decisions “probably made instances of abuse more likely. … 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 legal and political sensitivities of the issue.
McClatchy’s interviews are the most ever conducted with former Guantánamo detainees by a U.S. news organization. The issue of detainee backgrounds has been reported previously by other media outlets, but not as comprehensively.
In contrast, the U.S. military at Guantánamo often relied on secondhand accounts while defense lawyers relied mainly on detainees’ accounts.
The Pentagon declined to discuss the findings. It issued a statement Friday saying that military policy always has been to treat detainees humanely, to investigate credible complaints of abuse and to hold people accountable. The statement says an al-Qaida manual urges detainees to lie about prison conditions once they’re released. “We typically do not respond to each and every allegation of abuse made by past and present detainees,” the statement said.
The McClatchy investigation found that top Bush administration officials knew within months of opening the Guantánamo detention center that many prisoners weren’t “the worst of the worst.” From the moment that Guantánamo opened in early 2002, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White said, it was obvious that at least one-third of the population didn’t belong there.
Of 66 detainees interviewed by McClatchy, the evidence indicates that 34, about 52 percent, had connections with militant groups or activities. At least 23 of those 34, however, were Taliban foot soldiers, conscripts, low-level volunteers or adventure-seekers.
Only seven of the 66 were in positions to have had ties to al-Qaida’s leadership, and it isn’t clear any of them knew any terrorists of consequence.
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 a series of written questions from McClatchy, and to a list of 63 of the 66 former detainees interviewed for this story, 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.
Former senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials, however, said McClatchy’s conclusions squared with their 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 “Gitmo,” military slang for Guantánamo.
Rather than take 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 Bush to disregard or rewrite U.S. 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 U.S. soldiers — along with War Council members, their bosses and Bush — should be shielded from prosecution for actions that many experts argue are war crimes.
The Bush 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 those tribunals were deeply flawed, but it didn’t close them down.
So far, the military commissions have publicly charged only six detainees — less than 1 percent of the more than 770 who have been at Guantánamo — with direct involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks; they dropped charges in one case. Those few cases are now in question after the high court’s ruling Thursday.