Three years after it began, the prison experiment known as Camp Delta at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has reached a crossroads in its incarceration of those captured in the war brought on by Sept. 11.
Military officials have completed tribunal hearings for all 558 detainees and have compiled their most comprehensive report detailing what they have learned about potential future terrorist attacks. But the Bush administration now is battling efforts by lawyers for some of the prisoners to have the cases moved to federal courts in Washington.
Should that happen, it could end the military’s long-held goal of keeping those it has identified as “enemy combatants” out of the public spotlight and ensconced in the island prison.
The new report appears to buttress the military’s claim that it should be allowed to run Camp Delta without outside intervention because the camp has become “the single best repository of Al Qaeda information.”
The declassified summary cites more than 4,000 interrogation reports and says that some indicated Al Qaeda operatives were pursuing chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The summary does not elaborate on what that information is or how close the terrorist organization might be to getting such weapons.
According to the report, captives have described how Al Qaeda trained them to spread deadly poisons, and at other times armed them with grenades stuffed inside soda cans, bombs hidden in pagers and cellphones and wristwatches that could trigger remote control explosions on a 24-hour countdown.
The report also showed that not all those being held were suspected of being front-line soldiers and that 1 in 10 of the captives were well-educated -- often at U.S. colleges -- in fields such as medicine and law.
More than 20 detainees have been positively identified as Osama bin Laden’s personal bodyguards and one as his close “spiritual advisor,” according to the report. Another is listed as the “probable 20th 9/11 hijacker” -- a Saudi man named Mohamed al-Kahtani who made it to Orlando, Fla., before being deported just a month before the Sept. 11 attacks.
One detainee vowed to his captors that U.S. citizens in Saudi Arabia “will have their heads cut off.” Another prisoner, this one with strong ties to Bin Laden, the Taliban and the Chechen mujahedin leadership, said of Americans everywhere: “Their day is coming.... One day I will enjoy sucking their blood.”
The information gleaned from prisoners has been shared with U.S. intelligence agencies and top military officials. It also is designed to get the Pentagon message out to the public that the interrogations at Guantanamo Bay have been valuable and should not be interrupted by the courts.
Administration officials have maintained that it is more important to keep the interrogations on track to help prevent future terrorist strikes than it is to afford constitutional safeguards to non-U.S. citizens captured as enemy combatants. The classification was created by the administration to cover adversaries ranging from Taliban soldiers to Al Qaeda members and others suspected of threatening the United States.
But that position has been attacked by defense lawyers and civil libertarians who have gained ground before the Supreme Court and federal district court in Washington. They have argued -- successfully so far -- that the detainees cannot be held indefinitely without greater due process to challenge their incarceration. They also contend that many of the detainees were bystanders or small-time militants.
At the same time, the military has been pounded with allegations that prisoners have been abused and humiliated to get them to talk. That scenario has been used by critics to attack the credibility of the information the military has gathered and to question whether the Pentagon has abided by the Geneva Convention prohibiting harsh treatment.
Last week, a newly released detainee from Kuwait told the Los Angeles Times about prisoners at Camp Delta being hit, kicked, sexually humiliated and made to fear for their lives. And lawyers for six other prisoners filed suit in Boston claiming they also suffered abuse.
The Pentagon has said all allegations of abuse are routinely investigated, but they refuse to discuss individual detainees. That position makes the “Joint Task Force-GTMO” summary all the more exceptional.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Flex Plexico said the document was cleared for release through the military’s Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo Bay, and is to be used “in response to general questions from the public about the operations of the joint task force.”
His Southern Command colleague, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chris Loundermon, added that the data were crucial to helping the military brass tell the Guantanamo Bay story. “Unless you track GTMO operations day to day, you need to see this,” he said.
But the six-page summary report does not address the frustration that has been expressed by civil liberty advocates, defense lawyers and the families of prisoners held at Camp Delta.
Without some form of due process -- a concession granted to the detainees last year by the Supreme Court -- lawyers could not challenge their clients’ imprisonment. And without open records, families often did not even know their relatives were being held there or how they were being treated.
That veil was pierced last fall when transcripts of some of the tribunal hearings were filed in federal court in Washington as part of the federal court’s review. The transcripts detailed the charges against the detainees and showed how prisoners, unaided by lawyers, tried to defend themselves.
Some attended their hearings in utter dejection. The case of Khalid Bin Abdullah Mishal Thamer Al Hameydani was seen as typical of detainees’ despair. The Kuwaiti man was accused of associating with Al Wafa, an organization linked to Al Qaeda, and of fighting against the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.
His transcript includes this notation: “Detainee unresponsive. Sat in chair with head down. Did not speak at any time.”
In contrast, Saifullah Paracha of Pakistan, suspected of running an export business that planned to ship deadly chemicals to the U.S., engaged his accusers in a lively dialogue over a question posed by hearing officers: What exactly is Al Qaeda?
“Sir,” Paracha addressed the president of his three-officer tribunal. “How could anybody know who Al Qaeda is?” The tribunal president responded: “Good question. That’s a very good question.” Then the panel unanimously declared him an enemy combatant.
His Washington lawyer, Gaillard T. Hunt, said that had the hearing conformed to the Constitution, and had he been allowed to represent Paracha at Guantanamo, the session might have been fair.
“I have a sort of respect for U.S. Army officers. Most of them are honest people,” Hunt said. “And it seemed to me he had them eating out of his hand.”
Otherwise, Hunt called the hearing a sham.
“This whole thing is going to come unraveled big time,” he predicted, as lawsuits for detainees move through the courts.
The Guantanamo task force summary said many of the detainees remained too dangerous for release.
For instance Al-Kahtani, the presumed 20th hijacker, told interrogators that more than 20 fellow detainees were Bin Laden bodyguards who all received terrorist training at the infamous Al Farouq camp in Afghanistan. Al-Kahtani is also the captive who identified another detainee as Bin Laden’s spiritual advisor, what the report called “a significant role within Al Qaeda.”
The summary also outlines possible new intelligence on terrorist financing.
A detainee who helped run an international humanitarian aid group said he spent $1 million between November 2000 and November 2001 in Afghanistan, but also “admittedly purchased $5,000 worth of weapons utilizing the organization’s funds” to support the Taliban’s fight against the Northern Alliance and its ally, the United States, according to the summary.
A second detainee described traveling to Cambodia for relief efforts at an orphanage there. The summary adds, “By his own admission this detainee [also] met [Bin Laden] as many as four times during July 2001 and is believed to have substantial ties to Al Qaeda.”
More than a dozen captives had the U.S. cash equivalent of as much as $10,000 when they were apprehended. Two had more than $40,000.
And more than 10% of those housed at Guantanamo Bay, it turns out, have college degrees, many from U.S. schools, and were educated as physicians, pilots, engineers, translators and lawyers.
One detainee, who “has threatened guards and admits enjoying terrorizing Americans,” studied at Texas A&M; University for 18 months and also took courses in English at the University of Texas in Austin, the summary said.
Another, identified as an Al Qaeda weapons supplier, studied at the Embry-Riddle flight school in Arizona and earned a graduate degree in avionics management.
Before Sept. 11, the FBI had picked up indications that Bin Laden was sending flight students to Arizona to learn how to commandeer U.S. aircraft.
The summary also weighed the risk of releasing detainees, pointing out that “we have been able to identify at least 10 by name” who were sent home before hearings even began last fall, only to rejoin the fight against the United States.
Still more detainees remain eager to break out of Guantanamo Bay, and have told guards “all Americans should die.” One warned guards that one day he would “come to their homes and cut their throats like sheep.” He said he would use the Internet to “search for their names and faces.”
“Some are low-level jihadists with just enough training to construct grenades from soda cans,” the Pentagon summary said. “Others are highly skilled engineers with the ability to design and build sophisticated, remotely triggered bombs made with explosives manufactured from household items.”
The summary said detainees were often captured wearing a particular watch “favored by Al Qaeda bomb-builders because it allows alarm settings more than 24 hours in advance.”
Abdullah Kamal Abdullah Kamal Al Kandari of Kuwait was apprehended with a Casio watch, model F-91. At his tribunal hearing he testified that he worked for the Kuwaiti Ministry of Electricity and Water and that after Sept. 11 he journeyed to Afghanistan to help in relief efforts. Eventually, he said, he wound up in the custody of U.S. forces.
Questioned at his tribunal hearing about the watch, Al Kandari said it was a personal piece of jewelry that contained a compass that “shows the direction of Mecca” for his daily prayers.
“It’s not tied to an Al Qaeda company, is it?” Al Kandari said. “I swear I don’t know if terrorists use it or if they make explosives with it. If I had known that, I would have thrown it away. I’m not stupid.”
The tribunal was unimpressed. They declared Al Kandari an enemy, and he was returned to his cell.