America's prison for terrorists often held the wrong men
McClatchy Newspapers
McClatchy Newspapers
June 15, 2008

The militants crept up behind Mohammed Akhtiar as he squatted at the spigot to wash his hands before evening prayers at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

They shouted "Allahu Akbar" — God is great — as one of them hefted a metal mop squeezer into the air, slammed it into Akhtiar's head and sent thick streams of blood running down his face.

American troops dragged Akhtiar out of his home in Gardez, Afghanistan, in May 2003, flew him to Guantanamo in shackles that July and held him there for more than three years. The tribal leader from eastern Afghanistan belonged to an insurgent group and had taken part in rocket attacks on U.S. forces, American officials said.

Akhtiar was among the more than 770 terrorism suspects who were imprisoned at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They are, the Bush administration has said, "the worst of the worst."

The Islamic radicals in Guantanamo's Camp Four who hissed "infidel," spat at Akhtiar and assaulted him, however, 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 told McClatchy. Akhtiar was imprisoned at Guantanamo on the basis of false information that local anti-government insurgents fed to U.S. troops, he said.

An eight-month McClatchy investigation in 11 countries on three continents has found that Akhtiar was one of dozens and perhaps hundreds of men whom the U.S. has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments.

McClatchy interviewed 66 released detainees along with a number of local officials, primarily in Afghanistan, and reviewed available U.S. military tribunal documents and other records.

Most of the 66 were low-level Taliban grunts, innocent Afghan villagers or ordinary criminals, the McClatchy investigation found. At least seven had been working for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and had no ties to militants, according to Afghan local officials.

Of course, Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo was set up under special rules that allowed indefinite detention without charges, it's impossible to know how many of the 770 men who've been held there were terrorists.

The McClatchy investigation concluded, however, that many of the detainees there posed no danger to the United States or its allies and were imprisoned because U.S. officials were fearful of mistakenly letting a militant go free.

McClatchy's interviews are the most ever conducted with former Guantanamo detainees by a U.S. news organization. The issue of detainee backgrounds has previously been reported on by other media outlets, but not as comprehensively.

McClatchy also in many cases did more research than either the U.S. military at Guantanamo, which often relied on secondhand accounts, or the detainees' lawyers, who relied mainly on the detainees' accounts.

The investigation found that although U.S. forces often didn't know whom they were holding or how to obtain credible intelligence from them without enough trained interrogators and skilled linguists, prisoners were beaten and abused by military police, prison guards and intelligence officers.

Prisoner abuse became a regular feature in cellblocks and interrogation rooms at Bagram and Kandahar air bases, the two main way stations in Afghanistan en route to Guantanamo.

While he was held at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base, Akhtiar said, "When I had a dispute with the interrogator, when I asked, 'What is my crime?' the soldiers who took me back to my cell would throw me down the stairs."

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.

"The policy and legal decisions at the top probably made instances of abuse more likely," one former administration official said. "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 the legal and political sensitivities of the issue.

Instead of making America safer, the administration's detainee policies have radicalized detainees, fueled support for extremist Islamist groups, troubled even America's closest allies and turned Guantanamo into a school for jihad, Islamic holy war.

The administration may even have inadvertently sabotaged its ability to prosecute the terrorists it's imprisoned, because evidence gained from interrogations that in some cases bordered on torture may not be admissible in military courts. If the Supreme Court rules in a pending case that detainees in the war on terrorism have a right to challenge their detentions in court, the entire legal edifice the administration has invented since 9-11 could collapse.


The McClatchy investigation found that top Bush administration officials knew within months of opening the Guantanamo detention center that many of the prisoners there weren't "the worst of the worst." From the moment that Guantanamo opened in early 2002, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White said, it was obvious that at least a third of the population didn't belong there.

Of the 66 detainees whom McClatchy interviewed, the evidence indicates that 34 of them, 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 who knew nothing about global terrorism.

Only seven of the 66 were in positions to have had any ties to al Qaida's leadership, and it isn't clear that any of them knew any terrorists of consequence.

If the former detainees whom McClatchy interviewed are any indication — and several former high-ranking U.S. administration and defense officials said in interviews that they are — most of the prisoners at Guantanamo weren't terrorist masterminds but men who were of no intelligence value in the war on terrorism.

Far from being an ally of the Taliban, Mohammed Akhtiar had fled to Pakistan shortly after the puritanical Islamist group took power in 1996, the senior Afghan intelligence officer told McClatchy. The Taliban burned down Akhtiar's house after he refused to ally his tribe with their government.

The Americans detained Akhtiar, the intelligence officer said, because they were given bad information by another Afghan who'd harbored a personal vendetta against Akhtiar going back to his time as a commander against the Soviet military during the 1980s.

"In some of these cases, tribal feuds and political feuds have played a big role" in people getting sent to Guantanamo, the intelligence officer said.

He didn't want his name used, partly because he didn't want to offend the Western officials he works with and partly because Afghan intelligence officers are assassinated regularly.

"There were Afghans being sent to Guantanamo because of bad intelligence," said Helaluddin Helal, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister for security from 2002 to early 2004. "In the beginning, everyone was trying to give intelligence to the Americans . . . the Americans were taking action without checking this information."

Nusrat Khan was in his 70s when American troops shoved him into an isolation cell at Bagram in the spring of 2003. They blindfolded him, put earphones on his head and tied his hands behind his back for almost four weeks straight, Khan said.

By the time he was taken out of the cell, Khan — who'd had at least two strokes years before he was arrested and was barely able to walk — was half-mad and couldn't stand without help. Khan said that he was taken to Guantanamo on a stretcher.

Several Afghan officials, including the country's attorney general, later said that Khan, who spent more than three years at Guantanamo, wasn't a threat to anyone; he'd been turned in as an insurgent leader because of decades-old rivalries with competing Afghan militias.

Ghalib Hassan was an Interior Ministry-appointed district commander in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, a man who'd risked his life to help the U.S.-backed government. Din Mohammed, the former governor of that province and now the governor of Kabul, said there was no question that local tribal leaders, offended by Hassan's brusque style, fed false information about him to local informants used by American troops.

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 speak with McClatchy.

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.

Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, until recently the commanding officer at Guantanamo, said that detainees had supplied crucial information about al Qaida, the Taliban and other terrorist groups.

"Included with the folks that were brought here in 2002 were, by and large, the main leadership of al Qaida and the Taliban," he said in a phone interview.

Buzby agreed, however, that some detainees were from the bottom rung.

"It's all about developing the mosaic . . . there's value to both ends of the spectrum," he said.

Former senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials, however, said McClatchy's conclusions squared with their own 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 the military's slang for Guantanamo.

Guantanamo authorities periodically sent analysts at the U.S. Central Command "rap sheets on various prisoners and asked our assessment whether they merited continued confinement," said the analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "Over about three years, I assessed around 40 of these individuals, mostly Afghans. . . . I only can remember recommending that ONE should be kept at GITMO."


At a Pentagon briefing in the spring of 2002, a senior Army intelligence officer expressed doubt about the entire intelligence-gathering process.

"He said that we're not getting anything, and his thought was that we're not getting anything because there might not be anything to get," said Donald J. Guter, a retired rear admiral who was the head of the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps at the time.

Many detainees were "swept up in the pot" by large operations conducted by Afghan troops allied with the Americans, said former Army Secretary White, who's now a partner at DKRW Energy, an energy company in Houston.

One of the Afghan detainees at Guantanamo, White recalled, was more than 80 years old.

Army Spc. Eric Barclais, who was a military intelligence interrogator at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan from September 2002 through January 2003, told military investigators in sworn testimony that "We recommended lots of folks be released from (Bagram), but they were not. I believe some people ended up at (Guantanamo) that had no business being sent there."

"You have to understand some folks were detained because they got turned in by neighbors or family members who were feuding with them," Barclais said. "Yes, they had weapons. Everyone had weapons. Some were Soviet-era and could not even be fired."

A former Pentagon official told McClatchy that he was shocked at times by the backgrounds of men held at Guantanamo.

" 'Captured with weapon near the Pakistan border?' " the official said. "Are you kidding me?"

"The screening, the understanding of who we had was horrible," he said. "That's why we had so many useless people at Gitmo."

In 2002, a CIA analyst interviewed several dozen detainees at Guantanamo and reported to senior National Security Council officials that many of them didn't belong there, a former White House official said.

Despite the analyst's findings, the administration made no further review of the Guantanamo detainees. The White House had determined that all of them were enemy combatants, the former official said.

Rather than taking 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 President Bush to disregard or rewrite American 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 American soldiers — along with the War Council members, their bosses and Bush — should be shielded from prosecution for actions that many experts argue are war crimes.

With the support of Bush, Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the group shunted aside the military justice system, and in February 2002, Bush suspended the legal protection for detainees spelled out in Common Article Three of the 1949 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, which outlaws degrading treatment and torture.

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 Guantanamo.

In late 2004, Pentagon officials decided to restrict further interrogations at Guantanamo to detainees who were considered "high value" for their suspected knowledge of terrorist groups or their potential of returning to the battlefield, according to Matthew Waxman, who was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, the Defense Department's head official for detainee matters, from August 2004 to December 2005.

"Maybe three-quarters of the detainees by 2005 were no longer regularly interrogated," said Waxman, who's now a law professor at Columbia University.

At that time, about 500 men were still being held at Guantanamo.

So far, the military commissions have publicly charged only six detainees — less than 1 percent of the more than 770 who've been at Guantanamo — with direct involvement in the 9-11 terrorist attacks. About 500 detainees — nearly two out of three — have been released.

During a military review board hearing at Guantanamo, Mohammed Akhtiar had some advice for the U.S. officers seated before him.

"I wish," he said, "that the United States would realize who the bad guys are and who the good guys are."


How did the United States come to hold so many farmers and goat herders among the real terrorists at Guantanamo? Among the reasons:

  • After conceding control of the country to U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, top Taliban and al Qaida leaders escaped to Pakistan, leaving the battlefield filled with ragtag groups of volunteers and conscripts who knew nothing about global terrorism.

  • The majority of the detainees taken to Guantanamo came into U.S. custody indirectly, from Afghan troops, warlords, mercenaries and Pakistani police who often were paid cash by the number and alleged importance of the men they handed over. Foot soldiers brought in hundreds of dollars, but commanders were worth thousands. Because of the bounties — advertised in fliers that U.S. planes dropped all over Afghanistan in late 2001 — there was financial incentive for locals to lie about the detainees' backgrounds. Only 33 percent of the former detainees — 22 out of 66 — whom McClatchy interviewed were detained initially by U.S. forces. Of those 22, 17 were Afghans who'd been captured around mid-2002 or later as part of the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, a fight that had more to do with counter-insurgency than terrorism.

  • American soldiers and interrogators were susceptible to false reports passed along by informants and officials looking to settle old grudges in Afghanistan, a nation that had experienced more than two decades of occupation and civil war before U.S. troops arrived. This meant that Americans were likely to arrest Afghans who had no significant connections to militant groups. For example, of those 17 Afghans whom the U.S. captured in mid-2002 or later, at least 12 of them were innocent of the allegations against them, according to interviews with Afghan intelligence and security officials.

  • Detainees at Guantanamo had no legal venue in which to challenge their detentions. The only mechanism set up to evaluate their status, an internal tribunal in the late summer of 2004, rested on the decisions of rotating panels of three U.S. military officers. The tribunals made little effort to find witnesses who weren't present at Guantanamo, and detainees were in no position to challenge the allegations against them.

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