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Military Documents Detail Life At Guantanamo

U.S. military guards arrive for their sunrise shift at Camp Delta at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
John Moore
Getty Images
U.S. military guards arrive for their sunrise shift at Camp Delta at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Thousands of pages of previously secret military documents about detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison now put a name, a history and a face on hundreds of men in captivity there. The documents include details on 158 men on whom no information has ever been released.

The hundreds of classified documents — marked "secret" and "noforn," meaning the information is not to be shared with representatives of other countries — are assessments, interviews and internal memos from the Pentagon's Joint Task Force at Guantanamo. The task force was supposed to determine who the detainees were, how they might be connected to terrorism and whether they posed a threat to the U.S. and its allies in the future.

The files are part of a trove of classified information that was leaked last year to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. They were made available to The New York Times by another source, on condition of anonymity. NPR is reporting on the documents with the Times.

These intelligence summaries and assessments — which date back as far as 2002 and run until the beginning of 2009 — pull back the curtain on a sometimes chaotic process as officials at Guantanamo tried to determine whether detainees would continue to be held, be released to a third country, or be prosecuted for terrorism and other crimes.

Among the findings in the files:

-- A former detainee, Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda Bin Qumu, who is believed to be training rebel forces in Libya, has closer ties to al-Qaida than previously understood publicly. According to his detainee assessment, Qumu allegedly trained at two al-Qaida camps, fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets and the Northern Alliance, and moved to Sudan with other al-Qaida members.

-- There is new detail on a senior explosives trainer for al-Qaida, Tariq Mahmud Ahmad al Sawah, the man who claimed to have designed the prototype for a shoe bomb that failed to ignite on a U.S. plane in 2001. He was recommended for release from the prison because of his cooperation with authorities.

-- Shaker Aamer, also known as Sawad al-Madani and called "the professor" at Guantanamo, said he had no connection to al-Qaida. His military assessment says he was Osama bin Laden's personal English translator.

-- Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected plotter of the USS Cole attack in Yemen, reported directly to bin Laden, according to the documents.

-- And in at least two cases, the documents show that Guantanamo officials were aware that they had innocent men in captivity and even put that in writing in their prison files, and yet it took months to return them to their home countries.

In an official statement to NPR and The New York Times, the Obama administration defended the system for processing detainees.

"Both the previous and the current administrations have made every effort to act with the utmost care and diligence in transferring detainees from Guantanamo," the statement said. "Both administrations have made the protection of American citizens the top priority, and we are concerned that the disclosure of these documents could be damaging to those efforts."

The statement said it's "unfortunate" that NPR, the Times and other news organizations are publishing the classified Guantanamo documents. "We strongly condemn the leaking of this sensitive information," the statement said. It was signed by Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell and Ambassador Dan Fried, the State Department's special envoy in charge of negotiating the closure of the Guantanamo facility.

The Return of Qumu

U.S. intelligence sources tell NPR they have been tracking the former Libyan detainee, Abu Sufian Qumu.

He was picked up in Pakistan and arrived in Guantanamo in early 2002. The Libyan government asked for him back in 2007. Guantanamo officials who investigated Qumu at that time thought he posed a future risk to the U.S. and its allies. But four years ago, the U.S. released him to the Libyan government anyway.

U.S. intelligence officials now believe Qumu is helping train anti-government forces in Benghazi, Libya. It is unclear whether he is a leader of the rebels or simply joining in the anti-Gadhafi movement. What is certain is that his secret Guantanamo file shows an association with al-Qaida that stretches back decades.

It says he trained at two al-Qaida camps, joined Taliban forces to fight both the Soviets and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, and moved to Sudan with other al-Qaida members, where he drove trucks for one of bin Laden's companies. The documents say he was forced to leave Sudan sometime in 1997. From there he went directly to the tribal regions of Pakistan, where he allegedly received additional training with al-Qaida.

U.S. intelligence reports in the file say his name appeared on a hard drive that listed al-Qaida employees and their monthly wages. That's significant because most of al-Qaida's ranks tend to be volunteers; people on the payroll are considered more than just lowly foot soldiers.

Now that Qumu has turned up in Libya, U.S. intelligence is trying to figure out if he still has those al-Qaida connections.

Members of Congress are wondering the same thing. During congressional hearings earlier this month, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), asked Adm. James Stavridis about the presence of al-Qaida among the rebel forces.

"The intelligence that I'm receiving at this point makes me feel that the leadership that I'm seeing are responsible men and women who are struggling against Col. Gadhafi," the admiral said. He added, "We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al-Qaida, Hezbollah. We've seen different things. But at this point, I don't have detail sufficient to say that there's a significant al-Qaida presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks."

Intelligence officials tell NPR they don't doubt that the rebel forces are focused on defeating Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. What worries them is what might come next. Will the rebels push for Shariah law in Libya or allow al-Qaida to train there? Or would Qumu, if he becomes a leader among the anti-Gadhafi forces, be part of a contingent that permits terrorists to hide out amid the chaos of Libya's civil war?

With such close links to al-Qaida, there is some question as to how Qumu managed to get out of Guantanamo. Those familiar with the detainee release process said that by the end of 2003, diplomacy and politics began to play a larger role in transfer decisions.

In Qumu's case, U.S. officials tell NPR that Gadhafi had asked for Qumu's release almost four years ago. Gadhafi and, in particular, his son Seif al-Islam were trying to convince Islamists in Libya that the government intended to reconcile with them in good faith. Qumu was part of that effort. He transferred to Libya in October 2007, and he was released last summer.

New Details On Other Detainees

The documents also provide new details about other detainees that provide more insight into who has been held in the detention facility. Consider Tariq Mahmud Ahmad al-Sawah. The Joint Task Force said he was a senior explosives trainer for al-Qaida. He joined the group in late 2000 and served as an advanced explosives instructor for al-Qaida in Afghanistan. He told authorities he had trained about 80 students.

Al-Sawah was renowned for his creativity. He boasted about designing the prototype for the shoe bomb that was later used in a failed bombing attempt against a U.S. airliner in 2001.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaida leaders asked al-Sawah to experiment with "mines that could be used against U.S. ships." He allegedly designed "four magnetic limpet mines that could be attached to the underside of a metal-hulled ship and detonated, thereby sinking the ship," his file reads.

Because al-Sawah had been very cooperative with interrogators, he was deemed a medium risk — and was slated for transfer to a third country.

Shaker Aamer, also known as Sawad al-Madani, a 44-year-old Saudi, is known as "the professor." He has denied having ties to al-Qaida, but his file reads like a Who's Who of al-Qaida operatives.

While in London, he allegedly lived with Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks. He met with former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg in Afghanistan and eventually worked as bin Laden's personal English translator. He was rated a "high-risk" detainee who could provide good intelligence to the U.S. He is not recommended for transfer or release.

The secret files also document examples of prisoners who should never have been at Guantanamo in the first place. For example, one of the first men to arrive at the camp was an 89-year-old Afghan man who had dementia. He was held for a little more than five months.

According to his file, officials had discovered a list of phone numbers associated with the Taliban close to where he was picked up in Afghanistan. Officials said they couldn't link the phone numbers to the detainee directly. It turned out later that the detainee didn't even know how to operate a phone. So, he was released.

Gathering Intelligence And The Cole Bombing

At the end of each detainee assessment is a section set off in bullet points titled "areas of potential exploitation." It reads like a wish list for intelligence officials.

Detainees who had attended training camps were seen as being able to provide information on recruitment or the movement of personnel and equipment. Explosives experts could offer new insight on the target selection process or how al-Qaida decided which recruits should get such advanced training.

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri's file is a 15-page goldmine of information chronicling aborted plots, secret cells and turf battles among senior operatives. (Al-Nashiri is one of three prisoners who were held overseas and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques including waterboarding. He is slated to have a military trial at Guantanamo.)

In one episode in the fall of 2000, bin Laden allegedly didn't like the operatives al-Nashiri had chosen for an upcoming attack on a U.S. warship.

Al-Nashiri flew to Afghanistan to discuss the selection with bin Laden face to face. Before he left for Afghanistan, he told the two men he had chosen for the attack to go ahead and strike the very next U.S. ship that stopped in Aden. Two weeks later, the destroyer USS Cole came into port for refueling. A small rubber boat filled with explosives detonated near the waterline of the ship. Fourteen sailors died and 40 others were injured. Al-Nashiri was still in Afghanistan when it happened.

Officials gathered a lot of information contained in the secret files by playing detainees off one another — crosschecking stories against known timelines and previous investigations.

Officials allegedly learned a great deal about al-Nashiri's role in al-Qaida from another detainee, Abu Zubaydah. He told authorities that al-Nashiri was part of a plot to attack the United Nations in New York with chemical weapons. He revealed al-Nashiri's alleged role in a previously undisclosed plot in South Korea and claimed al-Nashiri planned attacks on the U.S. embassy in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. (Zubaydah, still at Guantanamo, was also subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.)

Another report, cited in the documents, said al-Nashiri was so dedicated to jihad that he "received injections to promote impotence and recommended those injections to others so more time could be spent on jihad (rather than distracted by women)."

Jim Clemente was part of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit at Guantanamo in the prison's early days. He was sent to the base to help military interrogators who were having trouble extracting information from detainees.

"A lot of it is rumor and innuendo, and then you get a consensus of information," Clemente said. "It is a multifaceted approach and a bit of a chess game, except that you are blind, in a sense. They come to you without any identification, and you have to go with 'this could be the guy who did X, Y and Z,' and then you try to prove it by assessing the detainee at capture, and human intelligence and other sources."

Cover Stories

Joint Task Force commanders were so concerned about the detainees' use of cover stories that they drafted a four-page, single-spaced memo laying out ways interrogators could detect deception.

The memo chronicles counter-interrogation techniques found in an al-Qaida manual. They range from something as simple as "speak slowly" because "this causes the interrogator to become bored" to sweeping strategies. "If you want to confess," it says, "you should have a plan that is well laid and rehearsed. ... What we mean by confessing here is the cover or fabricated story that you will give the interrogator to explain how you got caught, so you can conceal the other culprits and the important information."

Karen Greenberg, the executive director of New York University's Center on Law and Security, wrote a book about Guantanamo's first 100 days. She said interrogators faced a Sisyphean task. The odds and ends found in detainees' pockets when they are captured — known as pocket litter — were sent to Guantanamo in one large sack, she said, and couldn't be easily connected to individuals.

"Officials down there never knew who they had in custody, and they had no way of assessing them at the outset, other than by observing them and their interactions," Greenberg said. "Bad assessment in and bad assessment out, you could say."

In some of the files, there was evident frustration: "The detainee's account is only partially truthful," reads the file on Omar Khalif Mohammed Abu Baker Mahjoub, an alleged Libyan explosives expert. "Numerous gaps and inconsistencies remain in detainee's account. He has provided different versions of the story about how he lost his leg," and admitted lying about "the training he received on the use of poisons and explosives."

Creating Systems 'On The Fly'

During the Bush administration, the decision to transfer detainees to third countries — either to serve out sentences there or to be released — was made by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, two people familiar with the process said. Former Bush administration officials said he had to personally sign off on every transfer.

The process at the time these documents would have been used included basically sending detainee summaries and other intelligence to the CIA, FBI, Department of Justice and State Department officials. They would hold informal meetings in Washington, D.C., to come to some consensus about who should or should not be released. Those recommendations would then go up the chain until they reached Wolfowitz's desk, the officials said.

After the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that foreign born detainees had the right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts, the officials said, two things happened. The Bush administration set up combatant status review tribunals, or CSRTs, to review each case and determine whether the detainee was an enemy combatant; and diplomatic efforts to transfer detainees out of prison stepped up.

That's why, people familiar with the process told NPR, British detainees like Moazzam Begg were sent back to the U.K. in 2004 and 2005 regardless of their perceived risk to the U.S. and its allies. Around the same time, Afghan detainees were sent home.

Officials said the lower-risk detainees were sent first, in what was supposed to be seen as a vote of confidence in the Karzai government. The idea, the officials said, was that as the Karzai government grew stronger, more dangerous Afghan detainees would be transferred into their care.

The Bush administration transferred nearly 200 detainees to Afghanistan in this way. The Obama administration has made more individualized transfers. And so far they have only moved 67 detainees out of the prison.

New Guidelines

The Obama administration released new guidelines for dealing with Guantanamo detainees in January 2010. They put less emphasis on abstract risk categories and more on individualized decisions about whether detainees could be feasibly prosecuted or safely transferred to other countries, or whether their potential threat to the U.S. was such that they would need to be detained indefinitely under the laws of war.

Under the new guidelines, a 60-person task force drawn from the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, the FBI and other intelligence agencies is supposed to review all of the detainee files and recommend action twice a year.

Those recommendations, which are expected to contain classified information and general assessments, then go to a Guantanamo Review Panel. That's another interagency group that has to decide unanimously on the fate of a detainee.

As a general matter, the Obama administration has been hesitant to return detainees to countries that can't guarantee that they will either keep the detainees locked up or keep a close watch on them.

That's why nearly 60 Yemenis at Guantanamo are in a kind of purgatory, awaiting the day when the Yemeni government is stable enough to manage their return. As a general matter, in the Obama administration, each detainee's background is considered as much as the country to which he will be sent. Sending a "high-risk" detainee to Europe, for example, would be preferable to sending him to Afghanistan.

For detainees who will not be sent to third countries and are not slated for prosecution, the Obama administration introduced new rules that require a detainee's status be reviewed every three years to determine whether or not he remains a threat, should be scheduled for a military trial or should be transferred.

That's the executive order that essentially codifies indefinite detention, though the administration was careful not to use that language.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
Margot Williams is a NPR News Investigations database correspondent. Along with her reporting, Williams works behind the scenes compiling, mining and analyzing data for investigative reports, ferreting for information, and connecting the dots.