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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

Posted March 5, 2009 | 10:48 AM (EST)

Guantanamo: The Definitive Prisoner List


I've just published the first definitive list of the 779 prisoners who have been held in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (available in four parts -- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4). The list is the fruit of three years' research, which began with my book The Guantánamo Files, in which I related the story of Guantánamo, established a chronology explaining where and when the prisoners were seized, told the stories of around 450 of these prisoners, and provided a context for the circumstances in which the remainder of the prisoners were captured.

In the last 15 months, I have also published 12 online chapters telling the stories of over 250 prisoners that I was unable to include in the book (either because they were not available at the time of writing, or to keep the book at a manageable length), and, since June 2007, have also written over 300 articles about Guantánamo, many of which were first published on the Huffington Post.

In particular, I have covered the stories of the 143 prisoners released from Guantánamo since June 2007 in unprecedented depth, and have also covered the stories of the 27 prisoners charged in Guantánamo's Military Commission trial system in more detail than is available from most, if not all other sources. The list provides links to these articles and online chapters, and also provides references for the chapters in The Guantánamo Files where the other stories can be found.

It is my hope that this project will provide an invaluable research tool for those seeking to understand how it came to pass that the government of the United States turned its back on domestic and international law, establishing torture as official U.S. policy, and holding men without charge or trial neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects to be put forward for trial in a federal court, but as "illegal enemy combatants."

I also hope that it provides a compelling explanation of how that same government, under the leadership of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, established a prison in which the overwhelming majority of those held -- at least 93 percent of the 779 men and boys imprisoned in total -- were either completely innocent people, seized as a result of dubious intelligence or sold for bounty payments, or Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and that, in the cases of the majority of these men, had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or international terrorism.

I am aware, of course, that the Washington Post compiled a ground-breaking list of prisoners in the four years before the Pentagon was forced to release the names and nationalities of the prisoners, when information was hard to come by, and I am also aware that, last December, the New York Times compiled an online database, The Guantánamo Docket, which features entries for every prisoner held at Guantánamo, including (where available) transcripts of the tribunals and review boards used to ascertain, to the Bush administration's satisfaction, whether the prisoners had been correctly designated as "enemy combatants," and whether they could be approved for release or transfer.

This was clearly a major undertaking, but I maintain that, without further detailed analysis, it fails to address the bigger picture, which involves establishing a context in which to test the validity of the government's assertions.

We have, in recent years, accumulated a wealth of evidence establishing why the Bush administration's unadorned assertions need careful scrutiny. Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of U.S. intelligence who worked on the tribunals, has comprehensively demolished the credibility of the material used as evidence to justify holding the majority of the prisoners, as has an Air Force Major who also served on the tribunals. In addition, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a former prosecutor in the Military Commission trial system conceived by Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal counsel David Addington (the prime architects of the "War on Terror"), has done a similar job on the legitimacy of the Commissions, endorsing the views expressed over the years by numerous military defense lawyers, who, in some cases, have sacrificed their careers to oppose what they regarded as an unprecedented travesty of justice.

Lawyers for the prisoners have also made a significant contribution, revealing the prisoners' shocking stories to the world after their accounts were, mysteriously, cleared by the Pentagon's censors, and, in the last eight months, since the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights (reiterating an earlier ruling that was, they decided, overridden unconstitutionally by the Executive and Congress), judges have also played a significant role.

Since last June, judges in the Appeals Court and the District Court in Washington D.C. have thrown out the government's cases against 17 Uighur prisoners (Muslims from China's oppressed Xinjiang province), five Bosnians of Algerian origin, and Mohammed El-Gharani, a Saudi resident and Chadian national. El-Gharani was just 14 years old when he was seized in a random raid on a mosque in Pakistan, sold to U.S. forces, and then, like the men mentioned above, subjected not only to vile treatment, but also to allegations based on groundless or inadequate intelligence, or on confessions made by other prisoners whose credibility has been challenged by military and intelligence personnel. The allegations against the prisoners are littered with these kinds of dubious claims, and it is exactly for this reason that the available documents need to be examined with a critical eye.

Researchers who have been involved in this kind of detailed analysis include staff and students at the Seton Hall Law School, who have produced several reports based on the Pentagon's own documents, beginning with a pioneering report in 2006 (PDF), which established that, according to the government's own evidence against 517 of the prisoners, 86 percent were captured by the Northern Alliance or Pakistani forces, 55 percent were not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the U.S. or its allies, and only 8 percent were alleged to have had any kind of affiliation with al-Qaeda.

In a similar vein, my research for The Guantánamo Files, and much of my subsequent reporting, was based on a comprehensive analysis of the Pentagon's prisoner lists, the allegations against the prisoners, and the transcripts of the hearings, which allowed me to establish an instructive chronology, explaining who was captured where and when: whether in Afghanistan, crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan, or in Pakistan, for example, many hundreds of miles from the battlefields of Afghanistan. This then allowed me not only to present the prisoners' stories in their own words, giving voices to the voiceless, but also to establish a necessary context for establishing which side was telling the truth: either the prisoners themselves, or the administration, which, as mentioned above, often mustered an array of transparently coerced or superficial evidence to justify its activities.

In addition, crucial research confirmed that many, if not the majority of the prisoners handed over by U.S. allies were bought for bounty payments averaging $5000 a head, which encouraged a vast and unprincipled trade in Arabs who could be passed off as "al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects," and also established that, in Afghanistan, before the prisoners were transferred to Guantánamo, the administration had, against the wishes of the military, refused to hold "competent tribunals" -- also known as battlefield tribunals -- under the Geneva Conventions relating to prisoners of war. Held close to the time and place of capture, and allowing battlefield prisoners the opportunity to call witnesses, these had, previously, been championed by the U.S. military as a just and effective way of separating soldiers from civilians caught up in the fog of war, and in the first Gulf War, for example, the military held around 1200 battlefield tribunals, and decided, in three-quarters of the cases, that it had detained the wrong men.

My research was not an exact science, of course, but I remain convinced that it was -- and is -- the only manner in which to make sense of the bigger picture, and I remain disturbed by the fact that I was able to undertake this as a solitary independent journalist, and that no major media outlet devoted the required resources to investigating thoroughly the material that was made publicly available. As we have learned over the years -- and are still, in many senses, establishing under a new President -- the failure to thoroughly investigate the Bush administration's supposed evidence against the prisoners in Guantánamo effectively allowed its hollow claims that they were "the worst of the worst" to go unchallenged.

Those interested in the truth should recall, as Jane Mayer explained in her book The Dark Side, that, in the summer of 2002, when John Bellinger, then the National Security Council's top lawyer, was informed by a senior CIA analyst and by Guantánamo's commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, that at least half the prisoners were there by mistake, his attempts to inform the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and to seek a review of the prisoners' cases were thwarted when a scheduled meeting was hijacked by David Addington, who declared, imperiously, "No, there will be no review. The President has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it."

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press), and maintains a blog here.