Leaked Documents Reveal New Details On Guantanamo
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
NPR, the New York Times and other news outlets reported today on more than 700 secret documents that provide fresh insights on many of the men who populated the cells of the notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The leaks tell us details like what they had in their pockets when they were captured and generalized assessments on how much of a threat they might be if released.
They include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind of 9/11; a sheepherder picked up by mistake and held for three years; and a man once judged a probable member of al-Qaeda who now commands a rebel unit in Libya.
If you have questions about what these documents tell us and what they don't, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, on the Opinion Page, a former teacher alleges high schools fall prey to AP mania. But first, New York Times correspondent Scott Shane is here with us in Washington, in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us.
Mr. SCOTT SHANE (New York Times): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins us from our bureau in New York. Always good to have you on the program.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Thanks very much.
CONAN: Scott Shane, the Times says today these documents were materials released by WikiLeaks, part of the trove allegedly obtained by Bradley Manning. It also says the Times got them from another source. Is there anything more you can tell us about where these documents come from?
Mr. SHANE: I'm afraid I can't. Maybe I could set the stage a little bit. There were four big document dumps which have been part of what Bradley Manning, the private in - the low-level intelligence analyst in Iraq is accused of leaking.
There were first field reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then, of course, the State Department diplomatic cables, and this is the fourth such batch. But we, the New York Times, did not get them directly from WikiLeaks. We got them from a confidential intermediary.
CONAN: Does the fact that you know that they were also obtained another way, is that two sources? Are these two separate sources, is what I'm saying?
Mr. SHANE: I don't think anyone - I mean, I guess one way of answering your question is I don't think anyone, including the Defense Department, with whom we had extensive discussions over the weekend, has questioned the authenticity of these documents.
So the documents appear to be the actual detainee assessments written up between 2002 and 2009 at Guantanamo Bay. The question of whether what they say is always true or is always the last word on a detainee is a totally separate issue.
CONAN: And Dina, I'm sure those conversations with the Pentagon were quite interesting, but one of the things they said in a statement was it was unfortunate that these were made public and that indeed they may not be complete information.
Mr. SHANE: Well, that's right...
CONAN: I'm sorry, I put that to Dina.
Mr. SHANE: Oh, sorry.
CONAN: It's okay.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I was just going to say that is true, and I don't think that any of the New York Times coverage or the NPR coverage that we've had puts this forward as gospel or the last word on these detainees.
Instead, I guess the way we put it was it finally puts a name and a face and some history to men who have been shrouded mostly in mystery since they've been down at Guantanamo.
CONAN: And yes, that includes Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other people we do know a fair amount about. But as you suggest, a whole lot of people we didn't even have pictures of before.
TEMPLE-RASTON: No pictures, no information, nothing. I think our count was 158 people who no information had been out about them before is now out because of this document dump.
CONAN: And it should be made clear what's not in the documents as well. There's about, what, 75 who are not covered at all.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's right. We just - we assume that those are people whose files have been classified at a higher level than secret no foreign, which is what these documents were, basically secret and no foreign representatives or representatives from other countries were supposed to see them. So we assume some of these other ones were classified in a different way, and that's why we didn't get to see them.
CONAN: And Scott Shane, we don't get a lot of information about, quote-unquote, enhanced interrogation or torture.
Mr. SHANE: No, that's one of the ironies of this batch of documents. Guantanamo is, of course, famous for harsh treatment, mistreatment of detainees early in its history. There are at least a handful of cases that have been quite well-documented. But there's almost no reference.
This is not a look, in other words, at the interrogation methods or the behavior of the government. It's strictly a look at what the military analysts made of the detainees and their pasts and the risk that they might pose.
CONAN: And what do we make of these documents? As you looked at them, and I know you've been buried in them, Scott, for weeks - you too, Dina Temple-Raston. Scott, let's start with you. What have we learned that's new?
Mr. SHANE: I think the most - the overwhelming impression from going through several hundred of these is that was that this was an extremely difficult process.
Whether you think Guantanamo, setting up the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was a great idea or a terrible idea, these analysts were forced to try and make sense out of who these guys were. And it turned out to be an incredibly difficult task.
Even establishing what someone's correct name was and correct identity was could be a chore. And naturally it was very difficult, as it turned out, to tell the difference between a poor farmer who said he was a poor farmer and an al-Qaeda operative who said he was a poor farmer, and it could work in both directions.
For example, there was a young man who claimed to be from Afghanistan, claimed to have been conscripted into the Taliban and claimed that when he was caught he was trying to rescue his brother, who - his younger brother, who had also been conscripted by the Taliban.
And the analyst bought that, said he didn't pose any risk, sent him home, and he - it emerged that he was a guy named Abdullah Massoud(ph). He became a fairly important Taliban leader, engineered several attacks, kidnapping of some Chinese engineers, and finally died in a suicide attack in 2007.
But on the other end of the spectrum, there were numerous people who were rated high risk by the analysts and for various reasons were sent home and who have gone on to live quiet lives, or in the case of one German man of Turkish origin, he wrote a book about his Guantanamo experiences but I don't think has gotten into any kind of trouble.
CONAN: And Dina, there is a bunch of categories - I mean there's a bunch of detainees for whom, well, they pose a terrible problem for the administration, and this administration, maybe the next administration too. They are people judged to be way too risky to release, yet there's not enough information to hold them for trial or military tribunal.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, this is where the whole idea of evidence comes back to bite them a little bit, and you can see that in the documents as well. Often there is something that is - that they say a detainee was guilty of, that he was a member of al-Qaeda or that he was a suicide bomber, and it turns out that the people who accused him of this are detainees who have said they were in camp with him. And when these cases go to a federal court for habeas proceedings, basically to see whether or not there is enough evidence to hold them, you're having judges actually throw them out and say there's not enough evidence here, there's not enough there for them to pursue any sort of case.
CONAN: Well, some of those people were released. Some of their cases were upheld, and they're still in Guantanamo Bay. But the procedures by which some people got out and some people remain, Scott Shane, it seems arbitrary.
Mr. SHANE: Yes, it does have a little bit of a feeling of a lottery. A lot seemed to depend on what your nationality was. The European prisoners, those who had citizenship - U.K. or Germany - generally went home even if they were rated high risk.
The Saudis, including those who were rated high risk, mostly went home, some to enter a rehabilitation program that the Saudi government had set up. The lowest on the totem pole certainly seemed to be the Yemenis.
They - many of those - many people from Yemen have been cleared from release and are set for release and essentially said these guys do not pose a threat. But because of the chaos in Yemen and the active al-Qaeda branch there, the U.S. government doesn't want to send them there, and there's not a long line of other countries clamoring to take them.
CONAN: Again, if you have questions about what these documents reveal about the men held at Guantanamo Bay and what it doesn't reveal, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com.
And Dina, you can't read these dossiers - I guess that's what they are - for very long without getting caught up in some individual stories: a farmer who claims he was set up by an Afghan warlord, and indeed that turns out to be the case, and he still gets held for, what, three, four, five years.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Right, and there was another case that we took a look at that had to do with a man who was picked up in a big sweep in Afghanistan. And they had found near where this man was captured a list of numbers that were essentially Taliban telephone numbers.
So they take him to Bagram. Then they end up taking him also to Guantanamo, and I think he was in his 70s or 80s. And it takes them quite a number of months to figure out that not only are their numbers not associated with him, but he doesn't even know how to use a telephone.
CONAN: And Scott Shane, tell us about the case of Mr. Abdul Lahiv(ph). You find his case, particular case, pretty interesting.
Mr. SHANE: He's very interesting, and he may represent this category of can't prosecute and don't want to release that the Obama administration has described as maybe being about 50 people.
He is apparently from Tajikistan originally, and he has been very cautious in what he's said. One thing you learn from these documents is that there are delegations of intelligence officers from many countries who have been allowed to visit and talk to prisoners at Guantanamo.
He was visited by both the Russian delegation and the Tajik delegation, and they, you know, kick it around with the Americans. But basically he was incarcerated at Guantanamo not long after it opened in 2002, and in 2008, when this assessment of his case was written, they basically acknowledge that they did not know who he was. They were still uncertain of his identity.
But the reason they were concerned about him is that some of the material they had found with him was essentially terrorist manuals involving explosives, poisons, and other kinds of weapons.
So they have this belief that he must be some kind of a high-level terrorist, but they can't prove it, and they are afraid to let him go.
CONAN: And that so-called pocket lint, the materials that accompany a prisoner when he's captured, that can be damning. It turns out there was one case where a lot of really terrible-looking material in Arabic - and it took them, what, five years to figure out the prisoner didn't speak Arabic.
Mr. SHANE: That's right. That's right. He had always claimed that he had looted this from the house of a former Arab fighter who had fled. And they didn't believe him until they realized he didn't speak Arabic.
CONAN: We're talking with Scott Shane of the New York Times and NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Seven hundred secret documents, more than that, reported on in the New York Times, on NPR News and other news outlets today. What do they tell us about Guantanamo? And when we come back, what do these dossiers tell us about the interrogators? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.
Classified documents obtained by NPR, the New York Times and other news organizations reveal assessments made by intelligence officials who rank Guantanamo Bay detainees in terms of risk.
The files contain intelligence gleaned through interrogations, as well as notes on the prisoners' health and behavior. In an official statement, the Obama administration condemned the leak of the sensitive information, said it was unfortunate that NPR and the Times chose to publish the Guantanamo documents.
If you have questions about the documents tell us about the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website and find out more information about the documents there. Go to npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Scott Shane of the New York Times is with us here in Studio 3A. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is in New York.
And Dina, in addition to finding out a lot about the - or at least some about these detainees, we find a lot about the people who are asking them questions, including the rules and procedures they're supposed to use.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, they actually had something that they called the threat matrix, which was supposed to be able to help them assess a prisoner based on sort of these bulleted characteristics.
So we were talking earlier about detainees being high, medium or low risk. High risk was defined as someone who was likely to pose a danger to or a threat to the United States and its allies in the future.
And so this threat matrix was very general. For example, you were in the top tier if you were a confirmed member of al-Qaida. But in many cases, the way that they confirmed somebody was a member of al-Qaida is one detainee would say he was a member of al-Qaida. I knew that. And so it was very difficult to make those assessments.
And I spoke to someone who was actually down there making some of these assessments, a man named Jim Clementi, who was in charge of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit down in Guantanamo.
And he said that the threat matrix was basically because a lot of the interrogators were very young and had never done this kind of interrogation before. So they were essentially trying to teach to the lowest common denominator.
And when you have that, when you don't have these kinds of subtleties in interrogation, you get bad information. And I think some of the documents show us some of that.
CONAN: And there are also questions that, Scott Shane, as you start early on in 2002, 2003, documents seem to be a little bit more forthright than they are later, in 2008 and early 2009, when they seem to be more cautious.
Mr. SHANE: Well, anyone who looks through these is struck by the fact that in the documents that were prepared in the early years, 2002, '03, '04, they tend to be maybe a page long, two pages long and, at least in some cases, perhaps a little more credulous, a little more willing to accept what a detainee is telling them.
Later, by 2008 - many of them are dated 2008 - they tend to be 12, 15 pages. And part of that is just the accumulation of detainees talking about one another.
One of the striking things about this collection is it shows that a lot of these risk assessments, a lot of what they knew about these detainees was coming from other detainees, which of course is, on the one hand, inevitable they'd be asking each detainee about the others...
CONAN: Sure, check - how else do you check stories?
Mr. SHANE: Right, exactly. But - and that happens always with law enforcement. But it also is hazardous. There is one detainee who it says admits that he has been deceptive, basically, in order to win privileges. You know, famously, the interrogators were allowed to give Happy Meals to the detainees if they cooperated.
So you had this difficult process of sorting out who was telling the truth and who was trying to win a Happy Meal.
CONAN: Here's an email from Johann(ph) in Hamilton, Ontario: I have to say I'm surprised to hear most of the Saudi prisoners were released. I'm opposed to Gitmo. I think it's a black eye for the United States both in terms of how it's perceived around the world and how it flies in the face of oft-state principles. That said, were not 15 of the 19 hijackers on September the 11th from Saudi Arabia? Is the danger posed that keeps a prisoner in Gitmo, or is it the degree to which the United States gets along with the country of origin?
In other words, how important is the nation of origin here?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think we have to be careful about the term transfer and release. Just because someone leaves Guantanamo doesn't mean that they're suddenly going to be freed.
Many of these people were sent into jails in third countries to serve out terms. And when it came to the Saudis, it was a little bit different. They had this reeducation program that essentially was supposed to turn a hardcore, violent jihadist into sort of a moderate Muslim.
And so there were diplomatic negotiations that went on, and Saudis who were sent back to Saudi Arabia were supposed to go through this reeducation program, and they were given jobs and wives and homes and things like that to try to put them on the right path.
And there are some people who left that program, notably the second in command of al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. So the program didn't always take. But certainly, that was the idea why people were moved from Guantanamo into Saudi Arabia.
CONAN: And Scott Shane, you note in your story in the New York Times this morning that something like - even if you accept the Pentagon's number of the number of people released who have gone back to some form of jihad or another, at about 25 percent of those released have taken actions against the United States or its allies, that is below the usual number you accept for the number of people - prisoners released who end up being recidivists. However, it's one thing to be a recidivist burglar. It's another thing to be a terrorist.
Mr. SHANE: Well, that's right. And I should say even of those 25 percent - I believe the Pentagon's number is 14 percent confirmed, another 11 percent suspected. So they're not sure it's as high as 25 percent.
The other thing that is worth keeping in mind is there are - have been a few documented cases of people who did not have much of a militant history before they went to Guantanamo and clearly engaged in terrorism or joined the Taliban after they were in Guantanamo.
So sometimes return to battle, as the Pentagon says, or recidivist may be a misnomer. It may be actually someone who was radicalized at Guantanamo, who then went on to join a terrorist group.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation - again, 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. We'll start with William, William calling us from Belvedere in California.
WILLIAM (Caller): Yes. Thank you very much. One could certainly say thank goodness for WikiLeaks for the information it's provided. But I'd appreciate the guest's perspective on the fact that from what they've said and from what we've learned, there's been a microscopic and very precise and extremely expansive evaluation of each and every person who went to Guantanamo.
On the other hand, we received word in the news this morning on NPR that 500 members of the Taliban escaped last night from a prison in Afghanistan. And that seems to make the whole thing about Guantanamo just a complete waste. And I'd appreciate their perspective.
Mr. SHANE: Well, I think the - I think that is a very interesting point. I think one of the things that the - that certainly counterterrorism folks have wrestled with is if you send some young men home to Yemen or to Saudi Arabia who were, you know, had a particular world view, had not been - had not carried out any terrorist acts, but were hostile to the U.S. and perhaps somewhat admiring of radical Islamism, are you really adding very much to the pool of those guys who are in those countries to start with? And is it worth keeping this fraction of them locked up?
Certainly in the case of a guy like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who's still at Guantanamo, the planner of 9/11, you know, I think almost everyone would agree that he's got to stay there.
But there are many borderline cases, and, you know, of course, 600 people have been sent either home or to third countries. One hundred and seventy-two are left.
CONAN: Let's - thanks very much for the call, and let's go next to Liz, and Liz with us from Scappoose in Oregon.
LIZ (Caller): Hi, my question - and again, I would like perceptive: What do we do in the future when - you know, because you're going to assume that there are going to be more attacks, unfortunately, against our country. What are we going to do in the future with the so-called bad guys? I mean, do we have a plan so that Guantanamo does not happen again?
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think right now, there isn't a formal plan. But I think the plan that we're sort of seeing on the ground is more drone attacks.
I think one of the reasons why we're seeing so many drone attacks in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is because there's a certain amount of hesitancy of actually capturing people, bringing them to trial or trying to bring them to trial or holding them in that process.
So one way around the entire problem of this is to simply kill these people. And that seems to be what they've decided on for now, until they figure out something better.
CONAN: And it's significant that I don't think - have any detainees been sent to Guantanamo during the Obama administration?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I don't think so. Scott, have they?
Mr. SHANE: No, I don't think so. And, I mean, I think by policy, they're not sending any more there. Of course, President Obama had famously pledged to close the place. Now it's become clear that between congressional restrictions and the Obama administration's own review - which identified, as I said, these 50 or so guys who they don't think they can release and they don't want to try - you know, this is going to be a fairly permanently prison, at least, for the, you know, for the foreseeable future.
CONAN: Liz, thanks very much for the call.
LIZ: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Jamie, Jamie with us from Medford, Oregon.
JAMIE (Caller): Yes. Good morning, Neal.
JAMIE: Well, I just like to ask your panel something. I don't remember which news service this was that I caught on the radio this morning, but it was indicated that with - through the WikiLeaks that some people had been detained because of the simple fact that they were wearing Casio watches, which I understand were used in bomb-making classes towards the timepieces for the weapons. And it just seems to me that that's such an arbitrary thing, that it's no wonder that a lot of people got swept up through no fault of their own just by virtue of them having something on their possession that could have been thought of as being guilt-inducing. And I'll take any comments about that off the air.
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm not really sure that they were brought in or captured because of Casio watches. But I will say that there was sort of a lot of inferences drawn from very, very small clues. Again, this Scott's point of how complicated this all was. But one of the favored watches is this particular model of a Casio watch that was given sometimes to graduates of the explosives training programs for al-Qaida. And I'm sure that there were some people who were wearing these particular watches who went through the program.
But unfortunately, that sort of exponentially became a very important indicator at the camp, when, in fact, this particular Casio watch is sold all over the world. It's cheap, and that could be just another reason that they were wearing them.
CONAN: And they weren't engraved, you know, on the occasion of graduation from the explosives...
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, yes. Perfect bomb, A-plus in bomb-making. So...
CONAN: And that raises another question. I mean, some of these prisoners, Scott Shane, were able to be checked against documents that were captured in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. There were some - there was some al-Qaida paperwork that they had.
Mr. SHANE: Yes. And that's - I mean, you look these documents, and they have lots of footnotes. And the footnotes are to CIA reports, to FBI reports, the DIA reports. So there's kind of massive documentation. And these names were checked against those documents, and some of these assessments, it says, you know, this guy's name or one of his aliases appears in a captured al-Qaida document.
The problem with that, or the limitation of that is, you know - I must say, even to prepare these stories, we had to agree on what name to use for an individual detainee. Some of them have three or four different, radically different transliterations of four or five different names. And we were uncertain as to which was the, quote, "real name," unquote. And I think the -you know, that's - that means that if you find a name on a piece of paper in Afghanistan and it matches one of the aliases of one of your detainees, it might be a clue, but it might be a red herring.
CONAN: And there's also the case of the man whose identify they finally did establish. Yes, he had the same name as a al-Qaida suspect, but was a completely different fellow.
We're talking with Scott Shane of The New York Times and Dina Temple-Raston, NPR counterterrorism correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And David's on the line, David calling from Brooklyn.
DAVID (Caller): Yes. I was wondering if there was any evidence that any of the detainees were arrested anywhere besides Afghanistan or Pakistan?
CONAN: Arrest records outside of Afghanistan or Pakistan, so had previous arrest records in Yemen or Saudi Arabia or the...
DAVID: For a constant threat that was made to Iraqis who were captured in Iraq in 2003, 2004, was that they might be sent to Guantanamo. And certainly, some of them were al-Qaida member.
CONAN: Okay. Dina?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, yes. I mean, I don't think that they were limited to just Pakistan and Afghanistan. I think people were swept up in all kinds of different places. In particular, Abu Zubaydah, I think, was picked up in the United Arab Emirates. So I think the actual place of capture was less of an issue than their place of origin and how they might have fit into the fight.
And now, when they're trying to decide who is going to be transferred or who's going to be tried or who's going to end up staying at Guantanamo, it turns out that country of origin and country that you might be sent to are becoming the primary considerations in all of this, partly because they've been out of the fight for some time, and partly because I think deciding who was high or medium or low-risk didn't really work so well for them.
So it may be better to take a high-risk guy and release him to, say, a European country where they would either keep him in jail or keep him on a short leash, than transfer a medium - a so-called medium risk guy to a place like Afghanistan, where it would be very easy to - for him to fall into the wrong crowd.
CONAN: David, thanks very much.
Let's go, finally, to Steve, and Steve with us from Suffolk in Virginia.
STEVE (Caller): Hey. How are you guys doing?
STEVE: I find this a very stimulating conversation that you guys are involved in. I was, you know, I've sort of been listening as I've driving around. And I hear a lot of sort of anecdotal information, where it just sort of seems to me that American and Guantanamo - oh, I say America. The authorities in Guantanamo have been kind of clueless, it seems like. You know, they're - got people locked up who don't even speak the language.
Do you have anything that you can say anecdotally that paints America or the people who are running the show creating successes, you know? I mean, can you balance that out? I'd like to hear that, as an American, you know.
CONAN: Scott Shane?
Mr. SHANE: Well, I mean, I think I would emphasize that this was an incredibly difficult job. The folks who - the military analysts who had to assess these people were not the ones who made the decision to set up the prison and bring them there. And they have managed to downsize it from, you know, a total of 779 people who had arrived there one time or another, down to this 172 who are left today. And the, you know, solid majority - vast majority, really - of the people who were sent out of the prison have not rejoined terrorist groups. So that's, I suppose, an achievement of sorts.
STEVE: It seems to me with the guys who'd like - I think there were maybe 50 or so - I can't remember, exactly - who they can identify and they don't have enough evidence to bring to trial, but they don't have enough evidence to let them go. It seems to me that if you wanted to be free, you could provide enough evidence to be free. Like, I can name my wife and, you know, who I've seen my life and my, you know, the people I...
CONAN: And I don't mean to cut you off, Steve, but we're running out of time. And, Dina, I was hoping you could...
STEVE: Yes, sir. I got you. Okay. All right, thank you.
CONAN: ...could address that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm sorry, I'm not exactly sure what the question...
CONAN: Well, could these people about whom we're unsure provide information to clear up our uncertainty and prove their innocence, though that's difficult to do?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think we're also trying to think of these people in terms of being in a system where there is information, where everybody's carrying a passport or an ID or something like that. And that's just not where these people are coming from. And it's part of what makes this whole task at Guantanamo is so difficult, is anyone can say that they're anybody, and it's very hard to run that down. And that's why that prison is the way it is.
CONAN: Thanks very much for your time.
This is NPR News.
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