MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
We are learning a lot today about the men who have been detained at Guantanamo Bay prison. The information comes from secret military documents that were obtained by WikiLeaks. The records provide portraits of the detainees, what they supposedly did and why the government felt the men might pose a threat to the United States.
NPR is working with The New York Times to analyze the Guantanamo documents. And NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here to talk about what they reveal and also about their limitations.
Dina, thanks for being with us.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
NORRIS: So what kinds of information are you finding in these documents?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what they are are classified assessments of more than 700 detainees who are down at Guantanamo. And these assessments were done between February of 2002 and January of 2009. And here's why they're interesting: because for the first time, these documents make it possible to connect a name with a face, with a history and its evidence.
NORRIS: So do these assessments explain why the detainees are linked to terrorism?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, these are more like guess about risk, whether a detainee is likely to strike out against the United States or its allies in the future. And part of the problem here is that a lot of this was left to interpretation.
You know, in these classified documents, we found a two-page memo called the threat matrix. And it was essentially a bulleted list of characteristics to take into account when assessing a detainee and -like at the top of the list was whether the detainee was a committed and confirmed member of al-Qaida. The question is how do you figure that out?
Jim Clemente was in charge of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit down at Guantanamo, and he's seen the threat matrix. And he said there were a lot of young interrogators there who just didn't have a lot of experience with this sort of questioning.
Mr. JAMES CLEMENTE (Special Agent, FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit): You have to sort of teach to the lowest common denominator. And that is a very simplistic way of looking at things. There are very nuanced ways that actually experts in the field can use that could go way above and beyond what's on that paper.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That lack of nuance is part of the reason why some of the information they were getting wasn't that great. A lot of the time, they were determining that someone was with al-Qaida by having some other detainee simply say he was.
NORRIS: So it appears that there are circumstances where the evidence appeared to be rather thin in these documents.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Actually, that's what's really striking about what we read in this collection. You'd read an assessment of some detainee and you'd hear all these bad things that he supposedly did. And then you drill down a little bit, and it becomes really clear that the evidence is pretty sketchy. I mean, some of it was from other detainees who had mental illnesses or from detainees who were tortured.
NORRIS: So I want to ask you about this, the idea that one - that information from one detainee was used against another detainee, and then that becomes the basis for deciding whether or not these guys were risky or not.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. An issue here is whether the information is reliable. I mean, consider the case of one man whose name was Yousef al Karani(ph). He was from Saudi Arabia. There was a 10-page assessment on him in which he was identified as an al-Qaida suicide operative and a courier with links to Osama bin Laden. A judge looked at the evidence gathered against him. And in this case, the judge ended up throwing the case out. He said that the detainees who claimed al Karani was part of an al-Qaida unit or suicide unit just weren't credible, and he said al Karani should be released.
You know, I asked Karen Greenberg, who's the executive director of NYU's Law and Security center, about this very problem of evidence at Guantanamo.
Ms. KAREN GREENBERG (Executive Director, Center on Law and Security, NYU School of Law): When federal judges get these cases and they look at them, they really see that, in essence, there's no there there. Actual evidence. Who did what when, where, why, how does not seem to be emerging.
NORRIS: And as you said, that was the executive director of NYU's Law and Security center. Dina, you said that these documents cover 2002 to 2009. How has the system changed in that period?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, we talked to the government about this before we published the documents. And the Obama administration said that this isn't the way they assess detainees anymore, this threat matrix. Now, where the detainee's going, where he's going to be transferred or released is almost as important and, in some ways, even more important than his jihadi resume.
But I think what we take away from all of this, after reading these documents for a couple of weeks, is that closing Guantanamo is going to be really difficult. And if you believe the documents and these threat assessments, there are some really dangerous people in there. And if you don't believe the documents, it raises real questions about evidence and whether any of these people could really be tried in a civilian or military court.
NORRIS: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston speaking to us about secret military documents obtained by NPR and The New York Times that detail what happened at Guantanamo Bay prison.
Dina, thank you very much.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.