President Provides Details on Secret Detainees

The 14 men being transferred from secret CIA custody to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are described as senior al-Qaida operatives. President Bush provided surprising and significant detail on the capture of the men, and the information they have provided.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to take a closer look now at what is known about those 14 terrorist suspects once held in secret CIA prisons and now incarcerated at Guantanamo. NPR intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly joins us. Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What do we know about who these prisoners and are and why they've been kept out of sight for so long?

KELLY: Well, some of them are well known. The most prominent, we mentioned Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and he remains the most senior al Qaeda member captured to date. A few examples of the others - Abu Faraj al-Libbi, he reportedly took on general manager-type responsibilities within al-Qaida after Khalid Sheik Mohammed was arrested three years ago. Another one, Majid Khan - this is a Pakistani who lived for several years in the U.S. as recently as 2002, and he was allegedly working with Khalid Sheik Mohammed on a plot to blow up gas stations in the U.S. Abu Zubaydah we mentioned at the top, al-Qaida facilitator. And the list goes on - 14 men in total.

MONTAGNE: And did we learn any more about where they've been held - we talk about round the world, secret prisons around the world - details about their confinement?

KELLY: No to where they've been held. There's still no official word on where they have been. We did get some interesting details on their treatment, and interesting particularly in light of the many concerns that have been raised about suspected torture of these individuals.

Yesterday, a top U.S. intelligence official told us that these guys were given regular medical, dentures - dental, psychological exams. They were all given a Koran, other books, prayer rugs, DVDs, even he said access to gym equipment.

And another interesting tidbit here, we were told that in total - since 9/11, the CIA has held fewer than 100 people. That would include these last 14 that have just been sent to Guantanamo Bay in recent weeks. And the others, we're told, in many cases have already been sent back to their home countries or have been handed over already to the Defense Department.

MONTAGNE: And there was also quite a remarkable amount of detail about how much intelligence these men provided to CIA interrogators.

KELLY: Yes. We're told they talked quite a lot, not necessarily willingly at first. The president referred to what he called an alternative set of interrogation procedures, and he did not give any details on what these procedures were. He did say they were always treated in a safe manner, in a legal manner, and he says these alternative procedures worked.

He went through a long account of a chain of arrests. He started with the arrest of Abu Zubaydah. And the account the president provided yesterday goes that Abu Zubaydah apparently, quite early on after his detention, provided a key detail that Khalid Sheik Mohammed's alias was Muqtar(ph). And we're told that, along with other tips, this helped security officials track down Khalid Sheik Mohammed. We were told once he was captured, Khalid Sheik Mohammed mentioned another guy, Majid Khan - this is the gas station plotter, you'll recall. That led to the capture of a Malaysian named Zubir(ph), that led to more captures and so on.

We also got details of a foiled plot that allegedly involved anthrax. We heard about more airline plots. Really quite fascinating because we've not heard any of this before from U.S. officials. It was a remarkable leap to go from administration officials not even acknowledging that these prisons exist, which they never had before yesterday, to giving us detail after detail after detail about the intelligence that these detainees provided.

MONTAGNE: And why do you think the White House is releasing all of this details, bringing these men into the public just this moment?

KELLY: The official answer to that question from the president would be that their interrogations were winding down; that these men had fessed-up what they knew, and it was now time, the president says, to start thinking about what do we do next, how do we bring these people to trial?

A couple of other factors, though. Clearly, the recent Hamdan decision from the Supreme Court forced the administration's hand, and I would guess that was probably the single biggest factor here. And then there's always the political calculation. We heard from human rights groups and Democrats quite quickly after this announcement, pointing out that this account coincides neatly with the eve of important midterm elections coming up this fall.

MONTAGNE: Mary Louise, thanks very much.

KELLY: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

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