News that the Pentagon will soon release about a third of the prisoners still detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has prompted the U.S. media and many in the blogosphere to recall Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's 2002 statement referring to Guantanamo prisoners as "the worst of the worst."
And as recently as June 2005, he said, "If you think of the people down there, these are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield. They're terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers, [Osama bin Laden's] bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers, probably the 20th 9/11 hijacker."
But the Pentagon's announcement that it would soon release 141 prisoners or about a third of those still detained at Guantanamo comes despite continuing stubborn defenses of the facility and the way interrogators have determined the status of detainees.
This is not the first time prisoners have been released from the facility. Of the approximately 760 prisoners brought to Guantanamo since 2002, the military has previously released 180 and transferred 76 to the custody of other countries.
The Pentagon says the prisoners to be released no longer represent a threat to the U.S. and have no further intelligence value.
But critics of the George W. Bush administration's detention policies assert that the military does not have enough evidence on these people to try them, even before its own tribunals, which have a much lower threshold of evidence than U.S. courts.
Gabor Rona, international legal director for Human Rights First, told IPS, "If most of these guys are not al-Qaeda, i.e., are vanilla-flavored civilians or mere Taliban foot soldiers, then it gives the lie to the single mantra that the administration has left when attempting to defend itself against allegations of abuse in Gitmo: that the 'terrorists' are trained to make false allegations of abuse."
The Los Angeles Times, which reported the latest prisoner release story, said that charges are pending against about two dozen of the remaining prisoners. But it said the chief prosecutor left unclear why the rest face neither imminent freedom nor a day in court after as many as four years in custody.
Charges have been brought against only 10 of the approximately 490 alleged "enemy combatants" currently detained at the facility. None has been charged with a capital offense.
The U.S. plans to file charges against more Guantanamo detainees and will seek the death penalty in some cases, according to the top military prosecutor at the military base. But Air Force Col. Morris Davis declined to disclose details about plans to charge about two dozen detainees in addition to the 10 already charged.
The decision to release 141 detainees is the result of a yearlong review of their cases in which interrogators also determined that they could provide no further intelligence.
Since the U.S. started sending prisoners to Guantanamo in 2002, there have been increasingly shrill allegations from a variety of international legal and human rights groups that few of those being held were "terrorists." The Pentagon's own files suggest that the military made numerous mistakes in sending people to Guantanamo and detaining them there without charges or trials.
Many of these Pentagon "mistakes" have been held for close to five years. Some were not captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan, but kidnapped off the streets of Europe and various locations in the Middle East. Many were "sold" to U.S. authorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan for bounties. Many others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The fiercely nonpartisan National Journal magazine has reported that, "Notwithstanding Rumsfeld's description, the majority of [Guantanamo prisoners] was not caught by American soldiers on the battlefield. They came into American custody from third parties, mostly from Pakistan, some after targeted raids there, most after a dragnet for Arabs after 9/11."
Nevertheless, all were categorized as "enemy combatants" with ties to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or other groups that support terrorism.
While observers believe the Pentagon may well have evidence that some of the prisoners at Guantanamo were al-Qaeda operatives out to kill as many U.S. citizens as possible, in many other cases, the "evidence" is based on second-, third-, and fourth-hand hearsay. In still others, it is clear that admissions of guilt have been obtained through cruel and inhumane interrogations that many say amount to torture.
Pentagon mistakes are not difficult to find. For example:
A man named Saddiq has been behind razor wire for more than four years, even though the military acknowledged last year that he was not an enemy combatant. His lawyer says his opposition to Osama bin Laden makes him too hot to handle in his native Saudi Arabia.
The Chinese Uighur Muslims had fled persecution in China and some of them are still being held at Guantanamo. The military says they would not be safe if returned to their native country.
The so-called "Bosnian Six" are six Algerians who were seized in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002 and flown to Guantanamo after the Bosnian Supreme Court dismissed charges against them of plotting to blow up the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo.
Said one of them: "I've been here for three years and these accusations were just told to me.
Nobody or any interrogator ever mentioned any of these accusations you are talking about now. Not even one mentioned the embassy thing, the terrorist organization, the Algerian Islamic organization It's weird how this just came up now."
There are also at least three children, ages 13 to 15, according to Human Rights Watch, a leading advocacy group.
According to Defense Department files, a watch worn by one prisoner was similar to another Casio model that has a circuit board that al-Qaeda used for making bombs. The U.S is using the Qaeda-favored Casio wristwatch as evidence against at least nine detainees. But the offending model is sold in sidewalk stands around the world. And the detainee's Casio model hasn't been manufactured for years.
Murat Kurnaz is a Turk the government plucked off a bus in Pakistan and subsequently accused of being friends with a suicide bomber. The government did not tell Kurnaz's tribunal that his friend is alive and therefore could not be the referenced suicide bomber.
In January 2005, a federal judge singled out Kurnaz's case as evidence of the lack of due process in the Guantanamo tribunals. The judge said that his tribunal had ignored exculpatory evidence and relied instead on a single anonymous memo that was not credible.
A group of British men detained for nearly three years are now suing the U.S. government, alleging torture and other human rights violations. In a 115-page dossier, the men allege that they were beaten, stripped, shackled, and deprived of sleep during their detention. They charge that guards threw prisoners' Korans into toilets and attempted to force them to give up their religious faith.
They say detainees were forcibly injected with unidentified drugs and intimidated with military dogs. And they claim they were subjected to abuse and beatings during their detention.
Each said they eventually gave false confessions that they appeared in a video with al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, despite the fact that they could prove they were in Britain when the video was made. After they were freed last March, the men were questioned by British police but quickly released without charge.