Doubling Down On Failure At Guantanamo

April 27, 2011

There are still 172 detainees held at the Guantánamo Bay detention centre © Amnesty International

Released just as President Obama seems to have washed his hands of closing Guantanamo, a new batch of leaked government documents provide fresh insight into just how inadequate, iniquitous and ultimately counterproductive, the US foray into indefinite detention has been.

The new document cache consists of Detainee Assessment Briefs (DABs) – essentially case summaries – produced by intelligence analysts at Guantanamo between 2002 and 2009 that were first leaked to Wikileaks and then by someone in the Wikileaks community to the press.

The picture of Guantanamo that emerges from these new documents is of an arbitrary review process, operating from a presumption of guilt not innocence, thrown together on the fly, and overseen by individuals with so little understanding of cultural nuance that they might as well have been drafted in from Mars.

The New York Times points out that the qualification “possibly” appears 387 times about intelligence used in the files, with the qualifiers “unknown” and “deceptive” appearing 188 times and 85 times respectively. Further proof that the intelligence business is anything but a precise science.

The leaked material also highlights that adverse testimony from just eight inmates was cited in the files of 255 Guantanamo detainees. One inmate, Mohammed Basardah, alone provided ‘intel’ on 131 detainees. Abu Zubaydeh who was water-boarded at least eighty-three times, subsequently commented adversely on 127 inmates. Material from Fawaz Naman Hamoud Abdullah Mahdi was cited in six cases despite the fact that he suffered from severe psychiatric disorders.

The files reveal that intelligence analysts came to regard most of this testimony as unreliable.

Perhaps most shocking of all, it emerges from the documents that at least 150 of those detained in Guantanamo – twenty percent of the total inmate population – had no demonstrable connection whatsoever to Al Qaeda, the Taliban or any other armed group. So, not exactly ‘the worst of the worst’ after all.

These individuals were held unlawfully – in some cases for many years – before being released with no apology or compensation for their ordeal. As a signatory to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights – an international instrument the United States promotes around the world – the US has an obligation to provide remedy to these individuals.

This is far from a small point – lives have been ruined.  A study conducted by Lauren Fletcher and Eric Stover of UC Berkeley into the post-detention lives of sixty-two former detainees found that only six had been able to find permanent jobs since their release and that almost two thirds reported having emotional difficulties broadly consistent with PTSD. Furthermore, in the absence of their primary breadwinner many detainee families had been plunged into serious debt.

How long are American politicians going to keep doubling down on the disastrous policies of the Bush administration? Guantanamo has no international legitimacy, it has produced no intelligence of any value, and it has radicalized far more people than it has deterred.

Yes, there are undoubtedly some unpleasant people held in Guantanamo. Like a broken clock even US intelligence might actually be right twice a day and some inmates, like Khaled Shaikh Mohammed, have boasted openly about their role in terrorist attacks. However, Guantanamo was never the only option for dealing with them.

At this point, there really can’t be any doubt that the criminal justice system would have done a vastly better job. The innocent would likely have been processed and released, the guilty tried and convicted years ago if we had chosen this path instead. The evidential standard required by real courts protects us from acting precipitously on lies, half-truths and innuendo parsed inexpertly by the intelligence community.

This isn’t old news. Instead, of trying to fix the problem the Obama administration has now effectively embarked on a rebranding campaign. The Combatant Status Review Tribunals for which the Detainee Assessment Briefs were written have reappeared as Periodic Review Boards. Military Commissions are getting a lick of paint and a ‘new and improved’ sticker.

However, the reality is that Guantanamo is so broken it can’t be fixed – it needs to be condemned and shut down. It is an affront to every American who ever recited the Pledge of Allegiance and it is, as these new documents make clear, even by its own terms, a colossal failure.