Civil Liberties

'The Detainees' Innocence Was Inconsequential'


We knew that many of the "enemy combatants" imprisoned at Guantanamo—identified by the Bush administration as "the worst of the worst," "very hard cases," "the hard core," etc.—actually were innocent men, mistaken for Al Qaeda hangers-on or kidnapped and turned over to U.S. forces in exchange for bounties. But the details revealed this week by Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Colin Powell when Powell was secretary of state, are still infuriating:

There are several dimensions to the debate over the U.S. prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that the media have largely missed…

The first of these is the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the U.S. operations there. Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation….

The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the U.S. leadership [including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney] became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.

But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror…Better to claim that everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released….

[An] ad hoc intelligence philosophy…was developed to justify keeping many of these people, called the mosaic philosophy. Simply stated, this philosophy held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance…All that was necessary was to extract everything possible from him and others like him, assemble it all in a computer program, and then look for cross-connections and serendipitous incidentals—in short, to have sufficient information about a village, a region, or a group of individuals, that dots could be connected and terrorists or their plots could be identified.

Thus, as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees' innocence was inconsequential. After all, they were ignorant peasants for the most part and mostly Muslim to boot.

Wilkerson adds that "it has never come to my attention in any persuasive way—from classified information or otherwise—that any intelligence of significance was gained" through this approach. Of the nearly 800 men detained at Guantanamo over the years, he says, "two dozen or so…might well be hardcore terrorists." He castigates Cheney for his recent claims that President Obama is endangering national security by planning to close Guantanamo and either try or release most of the prisoners held there. By Wilkerson's account, Cheney has long known most of these men are nothing like "the worst of the worst," and he is continuing to cover for that lie.

More on innocent men at Guantanamo and the future of indefinite detention here, herehere, and here.