No Wonder Congress Wants to Hide the Gitmo Detainees

Whatever else the latest Wikileaks dump says about our nation's inapt (and inept) handling of the terror-law detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the newly-revealed documents remind us again of the wide gulf between what Bush administration officials consistently told us about the prisoners and what was actually happening on the ground in Cuba.

President Bush called the men "the worst of the worst" when he knew they weren't. An attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, called the detainees "killers" when the clear and compelling evidence indicated otherwise. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went even further. He called the men "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth." That we've known about these and many other risible contradictions for at least the past five years makes them no more acceptable today.

We were told these lies so that we would support the political and ideological priorities of the men who told them. We were told these lies so that we would not sooner start asking good questions about the legal justification for the way the Gitmo prisoners were being treated. In the words of Andy Worthington of The Guardian, "it was important to dehumanise the men held at Guantanamo, to give life to the myth that the prison held 'the worst of the worst.'"

The truth about Gitmo is that it was always a messy concept in theory and an unwieldy proposition in practice. It was (and obviously continues to be) full of ambiguities and contradictions itself. That's what the new Gitmo revelations say to me. It all makes you wonder where we'd be today -- how much lighter the stain would be -- if our elected officials and their subordinates had simply leveled with the American people right from the start.  

As part of its comprehensive coverage of the leaked documents, The New York Times offered up a great piece Monday from Scott Shane and Benjamin Weiser. They wrote:

The unredacted assessments give the fullest public picture to date of the prisoners held at Guantanamo over the past nine years. They show that the United States has imprisoned hundreds of men for years without trial based on a difficult and strikingly subjective evaluation of who they were, what they had done in the past and what they might do in the future. The 704 assessment documents use the word "possibly" 387 times, "unknown" 188 times and "deceptive" 85 times.

Viewed with judges' rulings on legal challenges by detainees, the documents reveal that the analysts sometimes ignored serious flaws in the evidence -- for example, that the information came from other detainees whose mental illness made them unreliable. Some assessments quote witnesses who say they saw a detainee at a camp run by Al Qaeda but omit the witnesses' record of falsehood or misidentification. They include detainees' admissions without acknowledging other government documents that show the statements were later withdrawn, often attributed to abusive treatment or torture.

There's more from Shane and Weiser:

The [17-page military intelligence] guide shows how analysts seized upon the tiniest details as a potential litmus test for risk. If a prisoner had a Casio F91W watch, it might be an indication he had attended a Qaeda bomb-making course where such watches were handed out -- though that model is sold around the world to this day. (Likewise, the assessment of a Yemeni prisoner suggests a dire use for his pocket calculator: "Calculators may be used for indirect fire calculations such as those required for artillery fire.")

A prisoner caught without travel documents? It might mean he had been trained to discard them to make identification harder, the guide explains. A detainee who claimed to be a simple farmer or a cook, or in the honey business or searching for a wife? Those were common Taliban and Qaeda cover stories, the analysts were told.

And a classic Catch-22: "Refusal to cooperate," the guide says, is a Qaeda resistance technique.

In a perfect world -- by which I mean a world in which the culpable are required to at least account for their choices if not pay for them -- House Republicans or Senate Democrats would soon be clamoring anew to call to Capitol Hill for sworn testimony men like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former White House staffer David Addington, and others who are  responsible for the way our government treated the prisoners after 9/11. Anyone want to lay odds on that happening?

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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