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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And now, a closer look at what's in these files with regard to one group in particular: detainees who were released from Guantanamo and then returned to terrorism. The exact number is not known, but NPR and The New York Times have identified 41 men by name who went back to al-Qaida or the Taliban.

NPR's Tom Gjelten considers whether or not the detainees' files predicted who would return to the fight.

TOM GJELTEN: The reason for holding enemy combatants at war time, as President Bush said, is that they are people who, if set free, might well go back to fighting you.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We have a right under the laws of war and we have an obligation to the American people to detain these enemies and stop them from rejoining the battle.

GJELTEN: U.S. commanders had another purpose in holding people at Guantanamo. They wanted to get intelligence from the detainees about any terrorist operations that were in the works. But the legal justification for Guantanamo was to keep combatants from going back to the fight, and the operation can be judged by that standard.

The record is not bad but hardly perfect. Two Saudis who were released from Guantanamo became leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, now the most dangerous al-Qaida branch in the world. An Afghan went home and re-emerged as a top Taliban leader. A Kuwaiti was released from Guantanamo only to end up as a suicide bomber in Iraq.

The classified military files from Guantanamo include ratings of how likely each detainee was to pose a threat to the U.S. if released. That risk assessment exercise is revealed for the first time in these documents.

Thomas Wilner has defended Guantanamo prisoners, but also advised the government on its detention operations. He wasn't impressed by the assessment process.

Mr. THOMAS WILNER (Lawyer, Shearman& Sterling LLP): Nobody wants to release terrorists, and you really wanted a good review. What I found was that you had people collecting raw intelligence data and throwing it into a pot, and then people who are not trained analysts would look at it and say, oh, there's a lot of stuff here, so this guy must be a threat.

GJELTEN: The result: some relatively harmless detainees were rated as dangerous while some truly threatening detainees were not.

Abdallah al-Ajmi, the detainee who went to Iraq as a suicide bomber was considered a medium risk, and his assessment was barely a page and a half long. In fact, the NPR investigation shows that detainees considered likely to pose a threat to the U.S. were no more apt to return to terrorism after being released than those who were rated medium or low risks.

David Remes, another lawyer who has represented detainees, says the record shows that Guantanamo interrogators just didn't get good intelligence on their subjects.

Mr. DAVID REMES (Lawyer, Covington & Burling): It is very hard to make accurate predictions in a situation where the evidence that you have is inherently unreliable, so you have decisions about dangerousness based on hunches or based on what jailhouse snitches have said.

GJELTEN: So was it pointless at Guantanamo to predict which detainees were safe to release and which were not? The Guantanamo lawyer, Thomas Wilner, says commanders there should have considered other factors besides a detainee's risk rating, like what might have happened to him at Guantanamo.

Abdallah al-Ajmi, the Iraq suicide bomber, was actually Wilner's client. It made sense, he says, that al-Ajmi was not seen as particularly threatening. When sent to Guantanamo, he was suspected only of having volunteered to fight with the Taliban. But Wilner says he was actually surprised when the government announced it was sending al-Ajmi back to Kuwait.

Mr. WILNER: I think he was not a terrorist caught up as terrorism before, but Guantanamo had turned this guy into a crazy sort of vegetable. He went from when I first met him to be a very nice, sweet kid, over a course of years to this wild, angry, angry person. And I was shocked.

GJELTEN: Wilner says the lesson from the people who returned to the fight, his client being one, is that if you don't want a detainee to go back to terrorism, you can't just focus on the terrorism resume he brought to Guantanamo. You have to prepare him for a return to normal life.

Mr. WILNER: How do you deal with them in releasing them? How do you make sure that a person who is angry at you doesn't do anything about it? There was just none of that subtlety of it.

GJELTEN: Unreliable intelligence, mistaken judgments, a haphazard transfer process: In the end, the Guantanamo documents may reveal less about the dangerousness of the people detained there than about than about the flaws of Guantanamo itself.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

NORRIS: And this story was co-reported by Margot Williams of NPR's investigative unit. Margot also created a joint NPR/New York Times database on all the Guantanamo detainees. You can explore that database and read some of the secret documents at npr.org.

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