Former State Department Official: Team Bush Knew Many at Gitmo Were Innocent

Don't reassess W.'s legacy without remembering the grave charges levied against him.
gitmo gates full.jpg

With the Bush Administration's legacy being revisited, it's worth taking another look at a story that surfaced a couple of years ago and was, for reasons I don't understand, immediately forgotten.

Retired Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who served the Bush Administration as a senior official in the State Department with access to classified documents and the most senior White House officials, was willing to testify, and formally declared under penalty of perjury, that many of the prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay were taken into custody "without regard for whether they were truly enemy combatants, or in fact whether many of them were enemies at all."

His declaration, filed in the spring of 2010 in a D.C. federal court, asserted that "of the initial 742 detainees that had arrived at Guantánamo, the majority of them had never seen a U.S. soldier in the process of their initial detention and their captivity had not been subjected to any meaningful review."

He proceeded to list some of the reasons that the Bush Administration had failed to release the innocent prisoners:

  • It was judged to be politically impossible.
  • Vice President Cheney took the position that the ends justify the means, he "had absolutely no concern that the vast majority of Guantanamo detainees were innocent," and he seemed to believe that "if hundreds of innocent individuals had to suffer in order to detain a handful of hardcore terrorists, so be it. That seemed to be the philosophy that ruled the vice president's office."
  • Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believed that "innocent people languishing in Guantanamo for years was justified by the broader War on Terror."

Wilkerson also asserted that his investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison concluded that 50 to 60 percent of the men imprisoned there were probably innocent, having been swept into custody by an overwhelmed military that wasn't given the resources it required by Team Bush. "I have made a personal choice to come forward and discuss the abuses that occurred," he stated, "because knowledge that I served in an Administration that tortured and abused those it detained at the facility at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere and indefinitely detained the innocent for political reasons has marked a low point in my professional career and I wish to make the record clear on what occurred."

Holding prisoners even after their innocence is known, as President Obama and the present Congress are doing even today, is a moral abomination, and completely contrary to the philosophy of the American framers, who believed that humans were endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If there is something more unAmerican than indefinitely detaining people you know to be innocent I don't know what it is. Doing so for political reasons may make it even worse. When Colin Powell next appears in public, journalists should press him to confirm or refute the assessments made by his former deputy in this searing but forgotten indictment. Justice would seem to require punishment for anyone who perpetrates this sort of injustice. It is unlikely to be served, but that doesn't excuse giving up.

They're still there.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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