Last June, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters, "If you think of the people down there [at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba], these are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield. They’re terrorists, trainers, bomb-makers, recruiters, financiers, [Osama bin Laden’s] bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers, probably the 20th 9/11 hijacker."
Yet two recent reports, based on the Defense Department’s own documentation, reach conclusions that are dramatically different than Rumsfeld’s. And amid the millions of words journalists have written about Guantanamo Bay during the past few years, the mainstream press has largely ignored these new reports.
One report [.pdf], prepared by a team headed by Mark Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and who is a lawyer for two of the Guantanamo detainees, found that more than half of the terror suspects being held have not been accused of committing hostile acts against the United States or its allies.
Compiled from declassified Defense Department evaluations of the more than 500 detainees at the Cuba facility, the report says just 8 percent are listed as fighters for a terrorist group, while 30 percent are considered members of a terrorist group and the remaining 60 percent were just "associated with" terrorists.
The evaluations were completed as part of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals conducted during 2004 to determine if the prisoners were being correctly held as enemy combatants. So far just 10 of the detainees have been formally charged with crimes and are headed for military tribunals.
According to the report, 55 percent of the detainees are informally accused of committing a hostile act. But the Defense Department’s descriptions of their actions range from a high-ranking Taliban member who tortured and killed Afghan natives to people who possessed rifles, used a guesthouse, or wore olive drab clothing.
The report also found that about one-third of the detainees were linked to al Qaeda; 22 percent to the Taliban; 28 percent to both; and 7 percent to either one or the other, but not specified.
Lolita C. Baldor of the Associated Press filed a story on the report on Feb. 7. But few U.S. newspapers have run the story.
The Defense Department documents, which are publicly available, were declassified versions of evaluations that contain additional information about each detainee. Those additional details were not made public. The Pentagon had no comment on the report for the AP, which has filed a lawsuit seeking the release of the classified versions of the documents.
"The government has detained these individuals for more than four years, without a trial or judicial hearing, and has had unfettered access to each detainee for that time," said the Denbeaux report.
Of the approximately 760 prisoners brought to Guantanamo since 2002, the military has released 180 and transferred 76 to the custody of other countries.
The second report, written by Corine Hegland for the fiercely nonpartisan National Journal (NJ), was based on a review conducted by the magazine of files on 132 prisoners who have asked the courts for help, and a thorough reading of heavily censored transcripts from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals conducted in Guantanamo for 314 prisoners.
Its conclusion: Most of the "enemy combatants" held at Guantanamo for four years now are simply not "the worst of the worst" of the terrorist world:
"[S]ome, perhaps many, are guilty only of being foreigners in Afghanistan or Pakistan at the wrong time. And much of the evidence even the classified evidence gathered by the Defense Department against these men is flimsy, second-, third-, fourth- or 12th-hand. It’s based largely on admissions by the detainees themselves or on coerced, or worse, interrogations of their fellow inmates, some of whom have been proved to be liars."
NJ reported, "Notwithstanding Rumsfeld’s description, the majority of them were not caught by American soldiers on the battlefield. They came into American custody from third parties, mostly from Pakistan, some after targeted raids there, most after a dragnet for Arabs after 9/11."
It added, "Much of the evidence against the detainees is weak. One prisoner at Guantanamo, for example, has made accusations against more than 60 of his fellow inmates; that’s more than 10 percent of Guantanamo’s entire prison population."
The men in the orange jumpsuits, President George W. Bush said, were terrorists. But according to the magazine, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) didn’t see it that way:
"By the fall of 2002, it was common knowledge around CIA circles that fewer than 10 percent of Guantanamo’s prisoners were high-value terrorist operatives, according to Michael Scheuer who headed the agency’s bin Laden unit through 1999 and resigned in 2004."
Even as the CIA was deciding that most of the prisoners at Guantanamo didn’t have much to say, Pentagon officials were getting frustrated with how little the detainees were saying. So they ramped up the pressure and gave interrogators more license, according to the magazine.
By June 2004 conditions were so bad at Guantanamo that the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only civilian group allowed to meet with detainees, sent a furious confidential report to the White House charging that the entire system in Cuba was "devised to break the will of prisoners at Guantanamo," making them "wholly dependent on their interrogators" through "humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions," according to a Defense Department report leaked to the New York Times.
The report called the operations "tantamount to torture." Pentagon officials, meanwhile, were citing the "safe, humane, and professional detention operation at Guantanamo that is providing valuable information in the war on terrorism." And members of Congress were touting the prison’s excellent cuisine.
Gabor Rona, international legal director for Human Rights First, told IPS, "If most of these guys are not al Qaeda, i.e., are vanilla-flavored civilians or mere Taliban foot soldiers, then it gives the lie to the single mantra that the administration has left when attempting to defend itself against allegations of abuse in Gitmo: that the ‘terrorists’ are trained to make false allegations of abuse."
Rona said it reminds him of a story he sees as emblematic of the legal process at Guantanamo. "The story is about a guy who, after relentless interrogation, finally admitted to knowing Osama ’Yes, OK, I know him, I’ve seen him on al-Jazeera’ upon which basis the Combatant Status Review Tribunal was informed that ‘the individual admits to knowing bin Laden.’ And upon this information, he was adjudicated an ‘enemy combatant.’"
Some reports disputing the Bush administration’s versions of conditions at Guantanamo have received widespread coverage in the U.S. press.
Amnesty International created a media firestorm with a report in which it referred to the prison as a "Gulag." Also widely covered was the recent report from investigators for the United Nations Human Rights Commission, recommending that Guantanamo be closed down.