03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Celebrate Gitmo's Eighth Birthday With A McClatchy Read-In

On January 11, 2002, the very first group of 20 detainees, fresh from the Global War On Terror, arrived at Camp X-Ray, becoming the first prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Eight years later, the nation is still trying to figure out what, exactly, it was all about.

President Barack Obama wants to keep Gitmo on the path to closure. Centcom Commander General David Petraeus provides a seemingly unassailable reason for doing so -- it's been a major recruitment tool for the enemies he's been seeking to keep off the battlefield abroad. But politics at home and an increased focus on the role of Yemen-based al Qaeda operatives have conspired to keep delaying the prison's final day.

And even after eight years, the media is still struggling to come to grips with what's been going on out there -- as well as at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Much of the media's failure to fully assess the Guantanamo legacy is self-inflicted; some of it is a willful refusal to admit how badly it has botched the story all along the way. The latest example, as Dan Froomkin documented here, finds a New York Times reporter, eight months after dutifully passing along an unsupported report on released detainees supposedly "returning" to the battlefield -- and earning herself a correction and a public scolding from Clark Hoyt -- going back and made the same mistakes, all over again.

That's why, with the Gitmo facility celebrating yet another anniversary, it's a good time to revisit a fantastic McClatchy series on the detainees at both Gitmo and Bagram, that ran in June of 2008. A massive undertaking by reporters Tom Lasseter and Matthew Schofield, the McClatchy series tracked down 66 released detainees, traveled to 11 countries, and paged through reams of tribunal transcripts to deliver a five-part report that addressed "who [the detainees] were, what had happened to them in the prisons the Bush administration set up in Afghanistan and Cuba and what had become of them."

The series is far too dense to do justice here, but here's a brief summation to get you started.

Hear the one about how we were detaining only "the worst of the worst?" McClatchy's reporting found otherwise: "[M]ost of the 66 were low-level Taliban grunts, innocent Afghan villagers or ordinary criminals. At least seven had been working for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and had no ties to militants, according to Afghan local officials. In effect, many of the detainees posed no danger to the United States or its allies."

The McClatchy investigation found that top Bush administration officials knew within months of opening the Guantanamo detention center that many of the prisoners there weren't "the worst of the worst." From the moment that Guantanamo opened in early 2002, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White said, it was obvious that at least a third of the population didn't belong there.

Of the 66 detainees whom McClatchy interviewed, the evidence indicates that 34 of them, about 52 percent, had connections with militant groups or activities. At least 23 of those 34, however, were Taliban foot soldiers, conscripts, low-level volunteers or adventure-seekers who knew nothing about global terrorism.

Only seven of the 66 were in positions to have had any ties to al Qaida's leadership, and it isn't clear that any of them knew any terrorists of consequence.

If the former detainees whom McClatchy interviewed are any indication -- and several former high-ranking U.S. administration and defense officials said in interviews that they are -- most of the prisoners at Guantanamo weren't terrorist masterminds but men who were of no intelligence value in the war on terrorism.

The lion's share of the abuse occurred at Bagram AFB, where the report found that "The worst period at Bagram was the seven months from the summer of 2002 to spring of 2003, when interrogators there used techniques that when repeated later at Abu Ghraib led to wholesale abuses." Those abuses "peaked in December 2002, when U.S. soldiers beat two Afghan detainees...to death as they hung by their wrists."

Soldiers who served at Bagram starting in the summer of 2002 confirmed that detainees there were struck routinely.

"Whether they got in trouble or not, everybody struck a detainee at some point," said Brian Cammack, a former specialist with the 377th Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit from Cincinnati. He was sentenced to three months in military confinement and a dishonorable discharge for hitting Habibullah.

Spc. Jeremy Callaway, who admitted to striking about 12 detainees at Bagram, told military investigators in sworn testimony that he was uncomfortable following orders to "mentally and physically break the detainees." He didn't go into detail.

"I guess you can call it torture," said Callaway, who served in the 377th from August 2002 to January 2003.

Lest you believe there was any practical purpose to the abuse, let's hear what prompted it from the abuser's own mouths: "Retribution for September 11, 2001."

Bumiller's erroneous contention that one in seven, or one in five detainees have "returned" to the fight suppresses the messy truth, which is that we have released plenty of detainees who've subsequently taken up arms against us. Messier still, however, is the fact that we have midwifed plenty of these terrorists into being ourselves. That's the vastly under-reported aspect to the recidivism story: we have become beggars to our own demise.

The McClatchy reporters "found that instead of confining terrorists, Guantanamo often produced more of them by rounding up common criminals, conscripts, low-level foot soldiers and men with no allegiance to radical Islam -- thus inspiring a deep hatred of the United States in them -- and then housing them in cells next to radical Islamists."

Soldiers, guards or interrogators at the U.S. bases at Bagram or Kandahar in Afghanistan had abused many of the detainees, and they arrived at Guantanamo enraged at America.

The Taliban and al Qaida leaders in the cells around them were ready to preach their firebrand interpretation of Islam and the need to wage jihad, Islamic holy war, against the West. Guantanamo became a school for jihad, complete with a council of elders who issued fatwas, binding religious instructions, to the other detainees.

Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, until recently the commanding officer at Guantanamo, acknowledged that senior militant leaders gained influence and control in his prison.

"We have that full range of (Taliban and al Qaida) leadership here, why would they not continue to be functional as an organization?" he said in a telephone interview. "I must make the assumption that there's a fully functional al Qaida cell here at Guantanamo."

Said one former detainee: "A lot of our friends are working against the Americans now, because if you torture someone without any reason, what do you expect?"

To think that people are up in arms about the conference committee's reconciliation efforts not being broadcast on C-SPAN! The worst of the Bush administration's detainee policies -- policies that are even now getting people killed -- were all taken up in the most undisclosed of locations. Those policies, as McClatchy explains, were "largely the work of five White House, Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers who, following the orders of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, reinterpreted or tossed out the U.S. and international laws that govern the treatment of prisoners in wartime."

The quintet of lawyers, who called themselves the "War Council," drafted legal opinions that circumvented the military's code of justice, the federal court system and America's international treaties in order to prevent anyone -- from soldiers on the ground to the president -- from being held accountable for activities that at other times have been considered war crimes.

Sen. Carl Levin, who's leading an investigation into the origins of the harsh interrogation techniques, said at a hearing Tuesday that the abuse wasn't the result of "a few bad apples" within the military, as the White House has claimed. "The truth is that senior officials in the United States government sought information on aggressive techniques, twisted the law to create the appearance of their legality and authorized their use against detainees," said Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

The international conventions that the United States helped draft, and to which it's a party, were abandoned in secret meetings among the five men in one another's offices. No one in the War Council has publicly described the group's activities in any detail, and only some of their opinions and memorandums have been made public.

You can catch John Yoo, one member of that group that gave themselves the fancy "War Council" name -- like they were children playing Dungeons and Dragons -- on The Daily Show tonight.

One of the fears that's often cited as a reason why we cannot possibly bring these detainees to prisons here in the United States, or try these individuals in court, is that their ability to influence other prisoners to take up resistance against their captors, and breed jihadism can only be curbed at shadow prisons like Gitmo. But in their final chapter, the McClatchy reporters found that this was going on at Gitmo anyway, where a former Taliban official effectively became "king of the prison."

Yet from mid-2002 till September 2005 at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, [former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam] Zaeef became a leader again. He helped orchestrate hunger strikes and exploit the missteps of a U.S. detention system that often captured the wrong men, mistreated them, then incarcerated them indefinitely without legal recourse.

The insurgency he helped launch in Guantanamo capitalized on the Americans' ignorance of Islamic customs and a pattern of interrupting prayers, shaving off prisoners' beards and searching their copies of the Quran.


The five-part series comes complete with a plethora of supporting materials, which make this reporting live large on the web in the same way that the Washington Post's excellent Walter Reed series does. The story is dense, complicated, bruising, and complete. And while it contains a fair share of blockbuster moments, it doesn't bask in the spectacle or demand a victory lap.

And if you're the type that prefers to pan through this sort of reporting, looking for the part where the politician you like or the side of the debate you support comes out looking like a winner, prepare yourself to be disappointed. The series is just relentlessly averse to picking a tidy political winner.

'I guess you can call it torture' [Nieman Watchdog]
How many detainees were wronged? [Nieman Watchdog]

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