In December 2001, Pakistani forces arrested two men within a few days of each other in the mountains on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The travelers had nothing to do with each other and little in common. Yet for the next year or so they shared a fate: imprisonment in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
A trove of documents released by Wikileaks on Sunday sheds new light on the lives of the nearly 800 men (and several teenage boys) who have done time at Guantanamo, including those two travelers. Taken together, the files tell the story of a moral conundrum. While many believe that the prison should be closed, largely because its very existence flouts basic legal and human rights concepts, powerful political and social forces line up against doing exactly that.
A number of specific examples illustrate this dilemma, but the stories of the two men captured in the mountains -- one a sworn member of Al-Qaeda, the other completely innocent of any designs against Americans -- are as good as any.
Soldiers arrested the innocent man, Ezhat Khan, as he returned to Pakistan from Afghanistan, where he’d gone to celebrate Eid with his parents and to attend his uncle’s funeral. Born in 1966, Khan was a native Afghan, a former woodcutter from Nangarhar Province. He’d lived there until 1999, when, as his case review notes in a rare instance of engrossing detail, he moved to Wacha Dara, Pakistan, to work “as a sharecropper for Taj Mohammed, a Pakistani,” who offered Khan “a place to stay and a patch of land to plant and harvest wheat and corn.”
Not unlike the U.S. military officers who eventually put him away, Khan evidently had problems with the Afghan leadership. According to Khan's case review, the Taliban had levied “oppressive taxes” on his woodcutting business, “making it increasingly difficult for detainee to support his family.”
In other words, the U.S. military jailed a man who the Taliban pushed out of his home. Khan had every reason to despise the Taliban; he was an enemy of America's enemy. So why did the U.S. see Khan as an enemy, too?
Although Khan was arrested “on suspicion of being associated with three Arabs who’d been arrested previously at the same border crossing,” he insisted that they’d made a mistake and, as his case file notes, the Pakistani officials who turned him over to U.S. military intelligence believed him. The Americans, however, weren’t quite ready to let him go.
It’s not that they doubted the veracity of his story. Rather, they believed he had information that could prove useful to them -- not about Al Qaeda or the Taliban but about the mountains where he was captured. As his case review put it, Khan was taken to Guantanamo “because of his knowledge of a covert route of travel through the mountains.” No matter that, as far as anyone could tell, he used this path solely for the blameless purpose of visiting his family.
For the crime of knowing something the U.S. wanted to know, Khan was deprived of his freedom for more than a year. That’s how much time passed before the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo decided whatever knowledge he had to offer wasn’t “valuable or tactically exploitable.”
Many prisoners like Khan were sent to Guantanamo, men and boys locked up for pretexts about as slim as their two- or three-page files. The taxi driver who made the mistake (as Khan did) of knowing his way around the battle zone. The 14-year-old boy who suffered the double misfortune of being abducted first by the Taliban and then by U.S. intelligence officers who wanted information on his captors.
A number of these stories have been told before, but seeing them laid out with bureaucratic authoritativeness on U.S. military stationery has the effect of reinforcing the view of Guantanamo as a monument to immorality and incompetence that should be shut down.
And then documents detail prisoners like Mohammed al-Qahtani. By now, much of his story is well known: He would have been the “20th hijacker” of the 9/11 attacks, kept from entering the U.S. by suspicious airport officials who pegged him (wrongly, of course) as a would-be illegal immigrant. The task force that reviewed his case noted he spent time at an Al-Qaeda training camp where he learned “marksmanship, weapon maintenance, leadership, survival training, terrain negotiation," and "resisting hunger.” His assessment as “high risk” to the U.S., therefore, may have been wise.
But that doesn’t explain why al-Qahtani still languishes in Guantanamo or why the government won't try him on U.S. soil in a civilian court. Indeed, halfway through his 15-page case review, the authors note, almost offhandedly, that he was “subject to harsh interrogation techniques.” In other words, al-Qahtani was tortured, and as even his torturers must know by now, evidence obtained through torture is worthless.
In 2007, U.S. Army investigators found that al-Qahtani's interrogators taunted him, beat him, and humiliated him, forcing him to wear a bra, putting a thong on his head, insulting his mother and sisters, making him wear a leash and act like a dog.
As a result, al-Qahtani therefore remains among dozens of inmates described by Daniel Fried, the State Department official burdened with the increasingly Sisyphean-seeming task of closing the prison, as “too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution.”
So what will become of al-Qahtani and the dozens of other prisoners deemed unprosecutable? Not to mention the 27 Yeminis who remain locked up because of what Fried described as “the deteriorating security environment” in Yemen? The 20 Chinese Muslims detained because the White House doesn't want to send them back to a China, where they might be, well, imprisoned?
As it happens, the release of these documents coincides with a turning point in a larger narrative, that of President Obama’s effort to shut Guantanamo down.
Last month, Obama signed an executive order bolstering Guantanamo’s practice of holding detainees indefinitely without charge. He gave the go-ahead to hold military trials at the prison, marking a sharp turn from the path that he'd started down a presidential candidate, when he called Guantanamo a “sad chapter” in American history and promised to close it.
Part of the rationale for keeping the prison open may well be that the use of torture has made some inmates "unfeasible for prosecution." But there's more to it than that.
Consider one last case: Prisoner 10024.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, described in his file as “the mastermind of the September 11th attacks,” was supposed to be the Obama administration's big prize, the key piece in its Guantanamo-closing strategy. By trying him successfully in a civilian court, the White House would prove the prison’s existence pointless. And so in November 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Mohammed would be transferred to a New York court for a “fair trial.”
Bowing to pressure from Congress, Obama has instead signed an act that essentially prohibits the administration from trying detainees in civilian courts.
This means Mohammed will get a military trial after all, and not because he can’t be successfully prosecuted in a civilian court. True, like al-Qahtani, he’d been subjected to “harsh interrogation methods,” including almost two hundred instances of waterboarding. But members of the administration had known that all along and still felt they had enough untainted evidence to prosecute him.
In a way, the problem is a domestic one. “No state in the union wants them,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in 2009. He meant the prisoners, and he was explaining why a Democrat-controlled Senate voted 90-6 that year to keep Guantanamo open -- the first major setback in Obama’s plan to close the prison. Since then, the political climate has shifted even further in favor of keeping the prisoners at what Hatch called the "perfect place" for them.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a briefing Monday that the president remains committed to "working towards the ultimate closure of the detention facility, consistent with the good security practices and values that we have a nation."
Now that Guantanamo's ugliness has once more been pushed into view, maybe Obama will finally find the support he needs to close the facility. But for now, the last 172 prisoners will stay where they are, their stories incomplete, their files still open.