Detainee-informer presents quandary for government
Del Quentin Wilber
February 3, 2009
An admitted Taliban fighter being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, fingered a fellow detainee for meeting regularly with Osama bin Laden. He identified another detainee for fighting at Tora Bora, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and a third for manning an antiaircraft weapon in Afghanistan. He claimed that a fellow Yemeni was one of bin Laden's bodyguards.
In dozens of interviews over several years at the U.S. military prison -- where he was rewarded with his own cell, McDonald's apple pies, chewing tobacco, a truck magazine and other "comfort items" -- Yasim Muhammed Basardah provided the evidence needed to continue detaining scores of alleged terrorists, military and FBI records show.
But as the Obama administration moves to close the detention center and tries to figure out what to do with the prisoners there, Basardah and the intelligence he offered have raised a pair of vexing problems for the government: Is the information he provided solid enough to bring his fellow prisoners to trial? And what do you do with Basardah and other informers, who are well known to the prisoners they ratted out?
Despite relying on Basardah's tips, military officials have expressed reservations about the credibility of their star witness since 2004. His trustworthiness was further thrown in doubt a little more than two weeks ago when a federal judge ordered a 21-year-old prisoner freed, saying he could not rely on Basardah's word to justify the man's confinement.
The government often relies on evidence other than informers' statements to justify detentions, but legal experts said how much credence the Obama administration gives the statements of Basardah and a handful of other informers will go a long way in determining which detainees are tried and which are released.
"The use of informants opens up a huge set of issues," said Robert Chesney, a law professor who focuses on national security issues at Wake Forest University. "Angels aren't present when the bad stuff is going down. The people present when bad things are happening, the ones you have to use as witnesses, are going to look bad."
Spokesmen for the Justice Department and the U.S. military declined to comment about Basardah, 33, or their use of informers. Basardah's civilian attorney, Steven Wax, a public defender in Oregon, also declined to comment.
Basardah, who is married and has a young son, was born in Yemen on New Year's Day 1976. He eventually moved to Saudi Arabia, where he became addicted to drugs and was an admitted drug dealer. He was arrested eight times on charges of stealing motorcycles and cars and illegally entering the country. He was exiled in 1995, U.S. military records show.
Back in Yemen, Basardah attended meetings sponsored by a Pakistan-based charity that recruits young men -- many poor and on drugs -- for holy war in Afghanistan, the military has alleged.
While others may have joined up because of their beliefs, Basardah told military officials his motive was cash. "I came in just for the money," he said at a 2005 military hearing.
By April 2001, he was being taught to use weapons at al-Qaeda's al-Farooq training facility in southern Afghanistan. By late 2001, he was hiding with bin Laden and others in the mountains of Tora Bora, where he acted as a cook and a fighter, he told military officials. He was arrested in Pakistan and turned over to U.S. authorities in 2002. He has been at Guantanamo since.
Much of the information contained in court filings from Basardah about his fellow prisoners is redacted or part of lengthy summary reports. But it is clear from military records and court documents that it didn't take long for Basardah to begin identifying others who trained at al-Farooq, stayed at Taliban or al-Qaeda guesthouses, protected bin Laden, or fought at Tora Bora.
At first, military authorities were thrilled with the information, but after some time the sheer volume of it began to raise concerns. In 2004, a military official assigned to help another detainee wrote in a report that Basardah was not providing credible information, according to two people familiar with it. The military official noted that Basardah put the other detainee at an al-Qaeda camp three months before the man even arrived in Afghanistan.
Basardah "should not be relied upon," the official wrote, adding that trusting him "strains the imagination" because he provided information on at least 60 other detainees. The officer wrote that not a single man identified by Basardah as training at the camp during a specific time frame was in Afghanistan during that period.
Similar problems have emerged in other cases. Basardah claimed that he saw another detainee at the al-Farooq training camp in April 2001. But government reports, including the detainee's own statements, put the detainee there just before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That detainee, a 26-year-old Yemeni, has been cleared for release.
A military investigator wrote in a May 14, 2004, report that Basardah's "credibility was in question with interrogators," according to a court filing. Later in the document, the official wrote that "the allegations made by Basardah that are currently being investigated . . . must be resolved."
The government contends in court documents that "a more recent assessment" shows that Basardah is reliable, and officials continue to use the information he provided in court.
Last month, the government's use of such informers suffered a blow when U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ordered the release of a 21-year-old citizen of Chad. The case was built largely on the word of two informers, one of whom is identifiable in court documents as Basardah, according to a review of the records.
Leon, who did not identify Basardah by name in his public opinion, wrote that government personnel had questioned the informer's credibility. The government has "specifically cautioned against relying on his statements without independent corroboration," the judge added. The credibility of the other informer, who has not been identified, was "undetermined," Leon wrote in a Jan. 14 opinion.
In that case, Basardah told interrogators that he had spotted the detainee, Mohammed El Gharani, who was 14 at the time of his capture, at an al-Qaeda camp and later at Tora Bora, according to court records. Leon noted that Basardah and the other informer gave "conflicting" accounts about when they spotted the detainee at the camp.
In comments to military officials, Basardah indicated that he cooperated because he came to like the Americans and to question the motives of al-Qaeda and Taliban members.
Attorneys for other detainees say they believe that Basardah provided information to get better treatment at the prison. He and other informers live in cells segregated from other detainees. He has received a CD player, chewing tobacco, coffee, library books and other perks, according to court documents.
He has also been given a video game console, according to Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer for Reprieve, a nonprofit group in London that represents 31 detainees. Freed detainees told Katznelson about the games, he said. "There is no basis to believe someone who has received so much that is normally forbidden at the camp," Katznelson said.
Basardah is a well-known informer among the other detainees at the prison. In military hearings and in statements to their attorneys, several detainees have said he lied about them. In 2006, a fellow prisoner told military officials at a hearing that Basardah had lied about him because they had gotten into an argument at the prison, according to a transcript of the proceeding.
A marked man, Basardah has pleaded for the government to find him a new place to live, according to transcripts of his annual review hearings. He wants asylum in the United States and the chance to join the U.S. military.
"I am cooperative to the point where my cooperation with everyone has led many people threatening my life," he said in one military hearing, according to a transcript. "I have put my life in danger and therefore I cannot go back to my own country. . . . They will not hesitate to kill me or anyone in my family."
The U.S. government will probably not grant Basardah and other informers asylum. That leaves two options for the U.S. government: find a third country to accept them or, more likely, send them home under protective arrangements, according to outside experts and former government officials. One former informer, a friend of Basardah's, has been sent back to his home, Iraq.
Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writer Peter Finn contributed to this report.