'High-Risk' Detainees Released From Guantanamo

NPR, along with The New York Times, is reporting on hundreds of classified documents concerning detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The documents were originally leaked to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, and come from the Pentagon's Joint Task Force at Guantanamo. In the papers, the government assesses the dangers posed by the detainees. An NPR investigation shows that some detainees, considered likely to pose a threat to the U.S. if they were released, were indeed let go.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We have a new look inside the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It comes from hundreds of classified files on detainees there.

The website Wikileaks obtained these files last year. Another source got them, and passed them to the New York Times. And the Times, in turn, has shared them with NPR News.

Our guide through these documents this morning is NPR's Tom Gjelten. Tom, good morning.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the papers, exactly?

GJELTEN: Most of them are documents from the Pentagon's joint task force at Guantanamo. They are classified reports. They include assessments of the detainees, summaries of the evidence against them. They run from shortly after Guantanamo opened up to January of 2009.

INSKEEP: And we're talking about everybody who's ever been through Guantanamo?

GJELTEN: All but 80 or so. We don't have any documents on them, possibly because documents on those guys were classified top secret. We don't have any top secret files, just secret.

INSKEEP: So that suggests that somebody who had - maybe not the maximum access, but pretty good access to files got a hold of these, passed them to Wikileaks. It's gone through several hands. You've been looking at them now, and what do learn from them?

GJELTEN: I'd say what we've learned that's most striking is about how the Guantanamo commanders ranked the detainees by how dangerous they allegedly were.

We've learned for the first time that the detainees were officially sorted by how likely they were to pose a threat to the United States, if released. That was the standard. They were ranked high, medium, or low risk in that regard.

We now see that more than a third of the detainees who passed through Guantanamo since it opened were officially assessed as likely to pose a threat to the U.S. But many in that high-risk group were shipped out anyway. That's what we've learned.

INSKEEP: How many were shipped out even though they were high risk to be a threat to the U.S.?

GJELTEN: At least 160 - and maybe more. We're being conservative here. And what's notable, Steve, is that the standing recommendation of Guantanamo commanders for several years was that no detainees who had been classified high risk should be transferred. But at least 160 were anyway.

INSKEEP: And did any of them prove to be a threat once they were released?

GJELTEN: Some have, yes. We've identified at least a dozen from that high-threat group that, in fact, did rejoin with al-Qaida or the Taliban. We'll actually have that story tonight, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Of course, the current concern, though, is the 172 detainees still at Guantanamo. Who, among them, will be transferred? Forty-seven are to be detained indefinitely. For one reason or another, the government has decided it's not feasible to prosecute them, but they're too dangerous to let go.

INSKEEP: So they'll have to be detained somewhere. If Guantanamo is ever closed, they'll have to move it somewhere, OK.

GJELTEN: Somewhere - probably Guantanamo, as far as we can tell for now. Here is what President Obama said about this group when he explained his Guantanamo policy two years ago.

President BARACK OBAMA: Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al-Qaida terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States. And those that we capture, like other prisoners of war, must be prevented from attacking us again.

GJELTEN: So Steve, they'll stay at Guantanamo, but there is a group of detainees who are due to be transferred to other countries. They're the ones members of Congress are most focused on right now.

Republican Mike Rogers, of Texas, spoke about them at a recent congressional hearing on Guantanamo.

Representative MIKE ROGERS (Republican, Texas): There's a group there that we all agree never gets let out, and then there's the rest. So as you close on that number of folks who should not ever be let go, then you run the risk of letting somebody go that shouldn't be.

GJELTEN: And that's the risk we're looking at. There are 89 in this group of detainees who, at some point, are to be transferred to other countries. We don't know which of the current detainees are in that group. But these classified risk assessments we now have show that no more than 42 of the current detainees -as of two years ago - were in the low or medium category.

So a bunch of supposedly high-risk detainees are due to be shipped out.

INSKEEP: Meaning that even though President Obama said, I'm not going to release high-risk people, high-risk people are due to be at least transferred to another country - if not released.

GJELTEN: True, Steve. But it's important to point out something here. After the Obama administration took office, all the Guantanamo detainees were reassessed in terms of what threat they represented. We don't have those reports.

When Attorney General Eric Holder spoke two years ago about the plans to transfer some of the remaining detainees to other countries, here's how he explained it.

Attorney General ERIC HOLDER (U.S. Justice Department): We've all made the determination, based on the reviews that have been done by career people in the Justice Department, the intelligence agencies, that these people do not pose a danger to the United States and that in releasing them or transferring them, we can do so with measures in place that we minimize the danger that they could pose to this country.

GJELTEN: But that's the question, Steve. We know the Bush administration - and to an extent, this administration - did ship out some Guantanamo detainees who had been seen as posing a threat to the U.S.

INSKEEP: Why would they do that, Tom Gjelten?

GJELTEN: Well, we actually have a comment from the administration. We alerted them we were doing this story, and yesterday we did receive a statement that said, quote: Both the previous and the current administrations have made every effort to act with the utmost care and diligence in transferring detainees from Guantanamo.

And Steve, they did express their concern that disclosing these documents could be damaging to those efforts. That statement was signed by Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell; and Ambassador Dan Fried, from the State Department.

INSKEEP: OK. The concern is noted, but the documents are now out there. It still leaves the question: They've got this Guantanamo facility. It hasn't been closed; it's still available. Why would they be transferring people out they classify as high risk?

GJELTEN: Steve, the thing to keep in mind is that they've had a deal with other governments that have been very anxious to get their people out of Guantanamo. Many, many of these detainees were transferred to other countries only after U.S. officials got assurances they'd be kept in custody in their home countries. That was true, in particular, for detainees going back to Afghanistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, but others as well.

Let me read from the file on Rasul Kudayev, a Russian who took up arms with the Taliban. The Guantanamo commanders noted this: Since the Russian government has agreed to incarcerate this detainee upon his transfer, he poses no further threat to the U.S. or its allies. But Steve, Kudayev was, in fact, released from custody shortly after he was sent back to Russia. Essentially, in this case, the U.S. got burned.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Tom Gjelten, who's been reviewing WikiLeaks documents about detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And Tom, we're talking here about ranking these different detainees according to the risks they would pose if released. Did you get any sense in the files that the U.S. government ever misjudged someone in custody?

GJELTEN: Yeah, there is some question, in fact, about the reliability of the intelligence that underlies these risk assessments. Some detainees were ordered released after a federal judge ruled that the evidence against them was too thin, or that it was obtained through torture. There's nothing in these documents to show how the intelligence was acquired.

But we do know that when outsiders review these files, they don't always come to same conclusion that intelligence officials reach. And even the intelligence officials themselves seem unsure at times.

One detainee, a Yemeni named Mohammed Basardh, became famous at Guantanamo for his willingness to provide information about fellow detainees, so much so that Guantanamo investigators put what amounted to an asterisk by his information. Quote: Detainee's firsthand knowledge in reporting remains in question. Any information provided should be adequately verified through other sources.

INSKEEP: And that's part of what we get here, is a sense of the difficulty of what the U.S. government is facing. Anything else in these documents catch your attention?

GJELTEN: There's a lot of interesting individual stories. For example, Steve, a Saudi who told his captors that as soon as he got out, he was going to start beheading Americans in revenge. But then he offered a deal. He said if he were paid $5 million to $15 million in compensation for his unemployment while at Guantanamo, he wouldn't go through with that threat.

There's also some interesting details about the explanations some Arab detainees gave for traveling to Afghanistan, where they were captured. In many, many cases, it was allegedly to teach people to read the Quran. In fact, the interrogators heard so many stories like that, that they wrote up a four-page memo on how to be on the lookout for them. It's called "Assessment of Afghanistan Travels and Islamic Duties as they Pertain to Interrogation." And Steve, it's one of the documents on our website this morning.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Tom Gjelten, in our studios. Margo Williams, of NPR's investigative unit, co-reported this story and helped to create a joint NPR-New York Times database that provides background on all Guantanamo detainees. And you can explore that database at NPR.org.

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