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NYT: Classified Gitmo docs reveal ‘seat-of-the-pants intelligence gathering’

On Sunday, WikiLeaks released more than 700 classified military documents on Guantánamo Bay prisoners, part of a trove of classified information it received last year, a portion of which the anti-secrecy website previously leaked to The New York Times and The Guardian, among other publications.

WikiLeaks announced it will be revealing details on each detainee every day over the coming month. According to National Public Radio, the new information was made available to the The New York Times by another source, on the condition of anonymity; the two media outlets are reporting on the information in tandem.

In this latest secret documents release, WikiLeaks, headed by Julian Assange (who last week made TIME’s 2011 list of most influential people in the world), says it is “shining the light of truth on a notorious icon of the Bush administration’s ‘War on Terror.’”

All told, WikiLeaks released details on 758 out of 779 total cases of detainees at the Cuba prison — details obtained from thousands of pages worth of memoranda from the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo Bay to the U.S. Southern Command in Florida, from January 2002 to February 2009. Details include prisoners’ personal information, capture information, prisoners’ health assessments, given reasoning for detainment, detainees’ accounts, ‘enemy combatant’ status and photos of most of the 171 prisoners still held in the prison. In addition, the organization has released summaries of evidence and tribunal transcripts on the first 201 prisoners released between 2002 and 2004, which, according to WikiLeaks, have never before been made public.

Wikileaks says these documents reveal evidence that the U.S. detained innocent men by mistake and offered “substantial bounties” to allies for al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects.

From WikiLeaks:

Crucially, the files also contain detailed explanations of the supposed intelligence used to justify the prisoners’ detention. For many readers, these will be the most fascinating sections of the documents, as they seem to offer an extraordinary insight into the workings of US intelligence, but although many of the documents appear to promise proof of prisoners’ association with al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations, extreme caution is required.

The documents draw on the testimony of witnesses — in most cases, the prisoners’ fellow prisoners — whose words are unreliable, either because they were subjected to torture or other forms of coercion (sometimes not in Guantánamo, but in secret prisons run by the CIA), or because they provided false statements to secure better treatment in Guantánamo.

As details on detainees — and the evidence against them — makes its way to the public, The New York Times, The Guardian, and National Public Radio have provided varying insights on what this information tells us about the how the U.S. government has handled Gitmo.

From The New York Times:

What began as a jury-rigged experiment after the 2001 terrorist attacks now seems like an enduring American institution, and the leaked files show why, by laying bare the patchwork and contradictory evidence that in many cases would never have stood up in criminal court or a military tribunal.

[...]

The government’s basic allegations against many detainees have long been public, and have often been challenged by prisoners and their lawyers. But the dossiers, prepared under the Bush administration, provide a deeper look at the frightening, if flawed, intelligence that has persuaded the Obama administration, too, that the prison cannot readily be closed.

[...]

The dossiers also show the seat-of-the-pants intelligence gathering in war zones that led to the incarcerations of innocent men for years in cases of mistaken identity or simple misfortune.

[...]

[F]or all the limitations of the files, they still offer an extraordinary look inside a prison that has long been known for its secrecy and for a struggle between the military that runs it — using constant surveillance, forced removal from cells and other tools to exert control — and detainees who often fought back with the limited tools available to them: hunger strikes, threats of retribution and hoarded contraband ranging from a metal screw to leftover food.

From The Guardian:

The files depict a system often focused less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters, than on extracting intelligence. Among inmates who proved harmless were an 89-year-old Afghan villager, suffering from senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim.

[...]

The range of those still held captive includes detainees who have been admittedly tortured so badly they can never be successfully tried, informers who must be protected from reprisals, and a group of Chinese Muslims from the Uighur minority who have nowhere to go.

One of those officially admitted to have been so maltreated that it amounted to torture is prisoner No 63, Maad al-Qahtani. He was captured more than nine years ago, fleeing from the site of Osama bin Laden’s last stand in the mountain caves of Tora Bora in 2001. The report says Qahtani, allegedly one of the “Dirty 30″ who were bin Laden’s bodyguards, must not be released: “HIGH risk, as he is likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.” The report’s military authors admit his admissions were obtained by what they call “harsh interrogation techniques in the early stages of detention.” But otherwise, the files make little mention of the widely-condemned techniques that were employed to obtain “intelligence” and “confessions” from detainees such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation and prolonged exposure to cold and loud music.

The files also detail how many innocents or marginal figures swept up by the Guantánamo dragnet because US forces thought they might be of some intelligence value.

A few key findings outlined by National Public Radio:

  • A former detainee, Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda Bin Qumu, who is believed to be training rebel forces in Libya, has closer ties to al-Qaida than previously understood publicly.
  • Tariq Mahmud Ahmad al Sawah, who claimed to have designed the prototype for a shoe bomb that failed to ignite on a U.S. plane in 2001, was recommended for release from the prison.
  • Shaker Aamer, also known as Sawad al-Madani, said he had no connection to al-Qaida. His military assessment says he was Osama bin Laden’s personal English translator.
  • Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the suspected plotter of the USS Cole attack in Yemen, reported directly to Osama bin Laden.
  • Guantanamo officials were aware that they had innocent men in captivity, yet it took months to return them to their home countries.
  • One detainee from Yemen informed on so many of his fellow detainees that authorities decided the reliability of his information was “in question.”
  • A Russian detainee was transferred to the control of Russian authorities, on the basis of assurances that he would be incarcerated back in Russia, only to be released from Russian custody a short time later. A Saudi detainee threatened to arrange the murder of “four or five” Americans in revenge for his imprisonment but offered not to follow through on the threat if he were paid $5 million to $15 million in compensation.

The Times and NPR have created a database featuring government documents, court records and media reports on the 779 detainees at Guantánamo.

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