Apr 1 2009

Dangerous Revisionism Over Guantánamo

Citing dirty evidence to defend dubious detentions

Amnesty International demonstration against GTMO--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/casmaron/Amnesty International

Amnesty International demonstration against GTMO–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/casmaron/Amnesty International

On the eve of the 2008 presidential election, the New York Times (11/3/08) published a front-page article headlined “Next President Will Face Test on Detainees,” which attempted to highlight the problems that Barack Obama will face in pursuing his pledge to close the
Guantánamo prison camp.

“The next president will have to contend with sobering intelligence claims against many of the remaining detainees,” reporters William Glaberson and Margot Williams warned, picking out examples from the cases of some of the 255 prisoners who are still held at the prison. Unfortunately, the quality of the supposed evidence against the Guantánamo prisoners deserves far greater scrutiny than their article delivered.

Although the reporters prefaced the majority of the Pentagon’s claims with phrases like “the government says” or “intelligence officials say,” the article set an uncritical tone with an unqualified opening line that could have been written by the Pentagon: “They were called the Dirty 30—bodyguards for Osama bin Laden captured early in the Afghanistan war.”

Missing from this bold statement were well-documented claims that the allegations about the men being bin Laden’s bodyguards came from confessions made by Mohammed al-Qahtani. A Saudi prisoner regarded by the Bush administration as having been a potential 20th hijacker for the September 11 attacks, al-Qahtani was subjected to life-threatening 20-hour interrogations and chronic humiliation and abuse over a period of several months at the end of 2002, as disclosed in an interrogation log published by Time magazine. When he was finally allowed access to a lawyer, in 2005, he recanted his allegations (Time, 3/13/06).

Also missing was any mention of complaints made at Guantánamo about the quality of the evidence against one of the so-called “Dirty 30,” Farouq Saif (identified by the U.S. authorities as Faruq Ali Ahmed). A Yemeni who had just turned 18 at the time of his capture, Saif stated that he had traveled to Afghanistan to teach the Quran to Afghan children. In his tribunal he was accused of being seen at bin Laden’s private airport in Kandahar, “carrying an AK-47 and wearing fatigues.”

In a revealing article for the National Journal (2/4/06), Corine Hegland reported that Saif’s personal representative (an officer appointed to represent him in his tribunal in place of a lawyer) investigated the airport allegation and was so appalled at its flimsiness that he submitted a written protest. The officer stated that the government’s sole evidence that Saif had been at bin Laden’s airport was the statement of another prisoner—a notorious liar, according to an FBI memo that the officer presented to the tribunal.

The FBI reported that he “had lied, not only about Farouq, but about other Yemeni detainees as well. The other detainee claimed he had seen the Yemenis at times and in places where they simply could not have been.” The representative added:

I do feel with some certainty that [the accuser] has lied about other detainees to receive preferable treatment and to cause them problems while in custody. Had the tribunal taken this evidence out as unreliable, then the position we have taken is that a teacher of the Quran (to the Taliban’s children) is an enemy combatant (partially because he slept under a Taliban roof).

The identity of the source in Farouq Saif’s case has never been revealed, but his claim still stands—as can be seen in the Times’ “Guantánamo Docket,” an online database of all the prisoners held in Guantánamo and the Pentagon’s allegations against them, published the same day as the Glaberson and Williams article. It’s logical to assume, therefore, that his false allegations against 59 other Yemeni prisoners include other cases of the so-called “Dirty 30.”

The Times might also have mentioned the complaints made last year by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of U.S. intelligence who worked on the tribunals. In a statement last November, he explained that the team responsible for compiling the summaries of evidence against the prisoners had little or no access to the intelligence agencies, and that, as a result, “most of the information collected . . . consisted . . . of information obtained during interrogations of other detainees” (SCOTUS Blog, 11/13/07).

The Times article was subsequently used as the basis for a Wall Street Journal online opinion piece (11/4/08) that congratulated the Times for discovering “that, gee whiz, many of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay really are dangerous terrorists,” and proceeded to “give the Times credit for leading the revisionist pack.”

As Barack Obama prepares a team to review the cases of the Guantánamo prisoners, who, in many cases, have now been held for seven years without charge or trial, the last thing the prisoners need is this kind of casual and unjustifiable “revisionism.”