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Some truths about Guantanamo Bay

The Washington Note Blog
by Lawrence Wilkerson
March 17, 2009

Lawrence B. Wilkerson was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and is chairman of the New America Foundation/U.S.-Cuba 21st Century Policy Initiative.

There are several dimensions to the debate over the U.S. prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that the media have largely missed and, thus, of which the American people are almost completely unaware. For that matter, few within the government who were not directly involved are aware either.

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.

This was a factor of having too few troops in the combat zone, of the troops and civilians who were there having too few people trained and skilled in such vetting, and of the incredible pressure coming down from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others to "just get the bastards to the interrogators".

It did not help that poor U.S. policies such as bounty-hunting, a weak understanding of cultural tendencies, and an utter disregard for the fundamentals of jurisprudence prevailed as well (no blame in the latter realm should accrue to combat soldiers as this it not their bailiwick anyway).

The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the U.S. leadership 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 and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers. They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantanamo Bay. Better to claim that everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released. I am very sorry to say that I believe there were uniformed military who aided and abetted these falsehoods, even at the highest levels of our armed forces.

The third basically unknown dimension is how hard Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage labored to ameliorate the GITMO situation from almost day one.

For example, Ambassador Pierre Prosper, the U.S. envoy for war crimes issues, was under a barrage of questions and directions almost daily from Powell or Armitage to repatriate every detainee who could be repatriated.

This was quite a few of them, including Uighurs from China and, incredulously, citizens of the United Kingdom ("incredulously" because few doubted the capacity of the UK to detain and manage terrorists). Standing resolutely in Ambassador Prosper's path was Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld who would have none of it. Rumsfeld was staunchly backed by the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney. Moreover, the fact that among the detainees was a 13 year-old boy and a man over 90, did not seem to faze either man, initially at least.

The fourth unknown is the ad hoc intelligence philosophy that 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 (this general philosophy, in an even cruder form, prevailed in Iraq as well, helping to produce the nightmare at Abu Ghraib). 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.

Another unknown, a part of the fabric of the foregoing four, was the sheer incompetence involved in cataloging and maintaining the pertinent factors surrounding the detainees that might be relevant in any eventual legal proceedings, whether in an established court system or even in a kangaroo court that pretended to at least a few of the essentials, such as evidence.

Simply stated, even for those two dozen or so of the detainees who might well be hardcore terrorists, there was virtually no chain of custody, no disciplined handling of evidence, and no attention to the details that almost any court system would demand. Falling back on "sources and methods" and "intelligence secrets" became the Bush administration's modus operandi to camouflage this grievous failing.

But their ultimate cover was that the struggle in which they were involved was war and in war those detained could be kept for the duration. And this war, by their own pronouncements, had no end. For political purposes, they knew it certainly had no end within their allotted four to eight years. Moreover, its not having an end, properly exploited, would help ensure their eight rather than four years in office.

In addition, it has never come to my attention in any persuasive way--from classified information or otherwise--that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement.

This is perhaps the most astounding truth of all, carefully masked by men such as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney in their loud rhetoric--continuing even now in the case of Cheney--about future attacks thwarted, resurgent terrorists, the indisputable need for torture and harsh interrogation and for secret prisons and places such as GITMO.

Lastly, there is the now prevalent supposition, recently reinforced by the new team in the White House, that closing down our prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay would take some time and development of a highly complex plan. Because of the unfortunate political realities now involved--Cheney's recent strident and almost unparalleled remarks about the dangers of pampering terrorists, and the vulnerability of the Democrats in general on any national security issue--this may have some truth to it.

But in terms of the physical and safe shutdown of the prison facilities it is nonsense. As early as 2004 and certainly in 2005, administration leaders such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, and John Bellinger, Legal Advisor to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and, later, to that same individual as Secretary of State, and others were calling for the facilities to be shut down. No one will ever convince me that as astute a man as Gordon England would have made such a call if he did not have a plan for answering it. And if there is not such a plan, is not its absence simply another reason to condemn this most incompetent of administrations? After all, President Bush himself said he would like to close GITMO.

Recently, in an attempt to mask some of these failings and to exacerbate and make even more difficult the challenge to the new Obama administration, former Vice President Cheney gave an interview from his home in McLean, Virginia. The interview was almost mystifying in its twisted logic and terrifying in its fear-mongering.

As to twisted logic: "Cheney said at least 61 of the inmates who were released from Guantanamo (sic) during the Bush administration...have gone back into the business of being terrorists." So, the fact that the Bush administration was so incompetent that it released 61 terrorists, is a valid criticism of the Obama administration? Or was this supposed to be an indication of what percentage of the still-detained men would likely turn to terrorism if released in future? Or was this a revelation that men kept in detention such as those at GITMO--even innocent men--would become terrorists if released because of the harsh treatment meted out to them at GITMO? Seven years in jail as an innocent man might do that for me. Hard to tell.

As for the fear-mongering: "When we get people who are more interested in reading the rights to an Al Qaeda (sic) terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry," Cheney said. Who in the Obama administration has insisted on reading any al-Qa'ida terrorist his rights? More to the point, who in that administration is not interested in protecting the United States--a clear implication of Cheney's remarks.

But far worse is the unmistakable stoking of the 20 million listeners of Rush Limbaugh, half of whom we could label, judiciously, as half-baked nuts. Such remarks as those of the former vice president's are like waving a red flag in front of an incensed bull. And Cheney of course knows that.

Cheney went on to say in his McLean interview that "Protecting the country's security is a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business. These are evil people and we are not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek." I have to agree but the other way around. Cheney and his like are the evil people and we certainly are not going to prevail in the struggle with radical religion if we listen to people such as he.

When--and if--the truths about the detainees at Guantanamo Bay will be revealed in the way they should be, or Congress will step up and shoulder some of the blame, or the new Obama administration will have the courage to follow through substantially on its campaign promises with respect to GITMO, torture and the like, remains indeed to be seen.

On that revelation and those actions rests much of the credibility of our nation's return to sobriety and our truest values. In fact, on such positive developments may ultimately rest our entire future as a free people. For there shall inevitably be future terrorist attacks. Al-Qa'ida has been hurt, badly, largely by our military actions in Afghanistan and our careful and devastating moves to stymie its financial support networks.

But al-Qa'ida will be back. Iraq, GITMO, Abu Ghraib, heavily-biased U.S. support for Israel, and a host of other strategic errors have insured al-Qa'ida's resilience, staying power and motivation. How we deal with the future attacks of this organization and its cohorts could well seal our fate, for good or bad. Osama bin Laden and his brain trust, Aman al-Zawahiri, are counting on us to produce the bad. With people such as Cheney assisting them, they are far more likely to succeed.

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