WASHINGTON — U.S. military intelligence assessing the threat of nearly 800 men held at Guantanamo in many cases used information from a small group of captives whose accounts now appear to be questionable, according to a McClatchy analysis of a trove of secret documents from the facility.
The allegations and observations of just eight detainees were used to help build cases against some 255 men at Guantanamo — roughly a third of all who passed through the prison. Yet the testimony of some of the eight was later questioned by Guantanamo analysts themselves, and the others were subjected to interrogation tactics that defense attorneys say amounted to torture and compromised the veracity of their information.
Concerns about the quality of the "facts" from the eight men goes to the heart of Guantanamo's "mosaic" approach of piecing together detainees' involvement with insurgent or terrorist groups that usually did not depend on one slam-dunk piece of evidence. Rather, intelligence analysts combined an array of details such as the items in detainees' pants pockets at capture and whether they had confessed to interrogators — American or otherwise.
More than two-thirds of the men and boys at Guantanamo were not captured by U.S. forces. So analysts were often left to weave together the stories told by detainees, the context of where and how they were initially scooped up, the information passed on by interrogators at other U.S. detention sites and, crucially, the testimony of fellow detainees at Guantanamo.
At Guantanamo, the captives were aware that some prisoners were providing a pipeline of information to interrogators — either to justify their continued detention or for use in potential prosecutions before military commissions.
"I heard there was another detainee talking about me," former Briton detainee Feroz Abassi said in a recent interview with McClatchy. "I thought, let them talk. They're only going to corroborate my story."
After being held at Guantanamo for more than three years, Abassi was released in a diplomatic deal in January 2005 at age 25. He now works as a caseworker at the London-based detainee activist group Cageprisoners.
Abassi said it later became apparent that some informants were "straying away from the truth, trying to save themselves. They crack and they think it helps them to point fingers. But they only dig a hole for themselves."
That appears to have been the case for Mohammed Basardah, a self-described one-time jihadist whose information was used in assessments for at least 131 detainees. In some instances, he accused fellow detainees of training at militant camps or taking part in the fighting in Afghanistan against the United States and its allies in late 2001.
Other times, intelligence analysts simply inserted a sliver of a quote from Basardah about the guilt of everyone caught at Tora Bora — the rugged mountain region where Osama bin Laden and members of his inner circle fled following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — as a sort of blanket truism.
The Yemeni's testimony was included despite worries highlighted in a 2008 Guantanamo intelligence assessment that his "first-hand knowledge in reporting remains in question" and a remark that many of fellow prison camp captives seemed "willing to reveal self-incriminating information to him."
At the Pentagon, Army Lt. Col. Tanya Bradsher said the military would not comment on the findings, based on documents obtained by WikiLeaks and given to McClatchy, because "the documents disclosed by Wikileaks are the stolen property of the U.S. government. The documents are classified and do not become declassified due to an unauthorized disclosure."
Among the other informants, who were used in the assessments to both make direct allegations against detainees and explain more general issues such as the relationship between various militant groups:
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- A Syrian detainee known as Abdul Rahim Razak al Janko, whose own file said that "there are so many variations and deviations in his reporting, as a result of detainee trying to please his interrogators, that it is difficult to determine what is factual." He was quoted or cited in records for 20 detainees.
- Muhammad al Qahtani, a Saudi man whose interrogations reportedly included 20-hour sessions and being led around by a leash, appeared as a source in at least 31 cases. A Guantanamo analyst note about Qahtani acknowledged that "starting in winter 2002/2003, (Qahtani) began retracting statements," though it argued that based on corroborating information "it is believed that (his) initial admissions were the truth."
At the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, the firm that has championed Qahtani's unlawful detention lawsuit, senior attorney Shane Kadidal said that "the information that was given in the first place (by Qahtani) was not reliable." As a condition of his security clearance, Kadidal said, he couldn't discuss the specifics of the WikiLeaks documents.
- Ibn al Shaykh al Libi, a Libyan, told CIA de-briefers in 2004 that he had earlier exaggerated his status in al Qaida because he thought that's what American interrogators wanted to hear. He also said that he fabricated connections between Iraq and al Qaida to avoid mistreatment or torture by Egyptian interrogators. Information from al Libi, thought to have been collected elsewhere, was cited in at least 38 of the Guantanamo files.
- Mohammed Hashim, an Afghan whose reporting was described in one analyst's note as "of an undetermined reliability and is considered only partially truthful," showed up in assessments for 21 detainees.
- Zayn al Abidin Muhammad Husayn, a Saudi-born Palestinian who's known more widely as Abu Zubaydah, was cited in about 127 detainee files. His interrogations are reported to have included at least 83 instances of water boarding, and his attorney, Brent Mickum, recently told McClatchy that "he provided tremendous amounts of information that was worthless."
- Fawaz Naman Hamoud Abdullah Mahdi was used in only six cases. But given a 2004 Guantanamo assessment of the Yemeni, it seems surprising that the fruit of his interrogations would be used as evidence against anyone: His "severe psychological disorder and deteriorating attention span" meant "the reliability and accuracy of the information provided by (Mahdi) will forever remain questionable," according to the assessment.
On Sunday, the Department of Defense released a statement saying the Obama administration's current Guantanamo Review Task Force has in some cases come to the same conclusions as the 2002-2009 assessments, and "in other instances the review task force came to different conclusions, based on updated or other available information."
Any lingering doubts about the eight men and the quality of their statements were rarely listed when their information appeared in the case files of other detainees. Guantanamo officials were so pleased with Basardah's work, for example, that his identifying a fellow detainee was used as an example in a guide to "threat indicators."
But in a 2009 opinion ordering the Pentagon to release Guantanamo detainee Saeed Mohammed Saleh Hatim, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina pointed out that Basardah's allegations about Hatim were collected several years after Guantanamo interrogators knew there were problems.
While the government maintained that Basardah provided interrogators with "accurate, reliable information," Urbina said that Basardah had been flagged as early as May 2002 by a Guantanamo interrogator who did not recommend using him for further intelligence gathering "due in part to mental and emotional problems (and) limited knowledgeability."
The interrogation in which Basardah fingered Hatim for operating heavy weapons on the front lines in Afghanistan happened in January 2006.
For Human Rights Watch senior counterterror counsel Andrea Prasow, who earlier in her career defended several Guantanamo captives, the military's heavy reliance on such prison camp snitches vindicates the role of federal judges in analyzing the Pentagon's patchwork of cases.
"But for habeas," she said Monday, "we'd never have known that Basardah was a liar."
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler took a similar view of Basardah in the unlawful detention lawsuit of Guantanamo detainee Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed. Kessler referred to Basardah as having "shown himself to be an unreliable source whose statements have little evidentiary value."
Kessler also wrote of the U.S. government's case against Ahmed and other Guantanamo detainees that "the mosaic theory is only as persuasive as the tiles which compose it ... if the individual pieces of a mosaic are inherently flawed or do not fit together, then the mosaic will split apart."
Basardah was not named publicly in either case, but his identity is clear after comparing the new Guantanamo files and the court cases.
In both cases, the judges ruled that the detainees should be freed.