This has been our nightmare since the Bush administration began stashing prisoners it did not want to account for in Guantánamo Bay: An ordinary man with a name something like a Taliban bigwig's is swept up in the dragnet and imprisoned without any hope of proving his innocence.
A case of mistaken identity's turning an innocent person into a prisoner-for-life was supposed to be impossible. President Bush told Americans to trust in his judgment after he arrogated the right to arrest anyone, anywhere in the world, and toss people into indefinite detention. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld infamously proclaimed that the men at Guantánamo Bay were "the worst of the worst."
But it has long been evident that this was nonsense, and a lawsuit by The Associated Press has now demonstrated the truth in shameful detail. The suit compelled the release of records from hearings for some of the 760 or so men who have been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. (About 490 are still there.) Far too many show no signs of being a threat to American national security. Some, it appears, did nothing at all. And they have no way to get a fair hearing because Gitmo was created outside the law.
Take the case of Abdur Sayed Rahman, as recounted in Monday's Times. The transcripts quote Mr. Rahman as saying he was arrested in his Pakistani village in January 2002, flown to Afghanistan, accused of being the Taliban's deputy foreign minister and then thrown into a cell in Guantánamo Bay. "I am only a chicken farmer in Pakistan," he said, adding that the Taliban official was named Abdur Zahid Rahman.
Other cases included prisoners who owned a particular kind of cheap watch supposedly favored by Al Qaeda. An Afghan was accused of being the former Taliban governor of a province and subjected to a pretzel logic that would make Joseph Heller cringe. He said he was a different person entirely and asked the tribunal to contact the current governor and verify his story. The presiding officer refused, saying it was up to the prisoner to produce the evidence. The incarcerated Afghan then pointed out that he was being held virtually incommunicado in a United States prison in a remote corner of Cuba and not allowed to make calls. The presiding officer assured the prisoner that he would have plenty of time to write a letter — during the year of continued detention before his case might be reviewed again.
Some of the prisoners proudly proclaimed their allegiance to the Taliban or Al Qaeda. But far too many seemed to be innocents or lowly foot soldiers simply caught up in the whirlwind after 9/11.
Because Mr. Bush does not recognize that American law or international treaties apply to his decisions as commander in chief, these prisoners were initially not given hearings. The transcripts are from proceedings that were begun under a court order. They started years after the prisoners were originally captured — a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. And they were conducted under rules that mock any notion of democratic justice.
Prisoners do not see the evidence against them and barely have access to legal counsel. Now, thanks to a horrible law sponsored by Senators Lindsey Graham, a Republican, and Carl Levin, a Democrat, they have virtually no right of appeal. The law even permits the use of evidence obtained by torture.
If the stories of the chicken farmer and the men with the wrong watches are new, the broad outlines of this disaster have long been visible. It is shocking in itself, and in the fact that average citizens have not risen up to demand that these abuses come to an end. The founding fathers knew that when you dispensed with the rule of law, the inevitable outcome was injustice. Now America is becoming the thing they sought to end.
© 2006 The New York Times Company