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WikiLeaks Documents Reveal U.S. Knowingly Imprisoned 150 Innocent Men at Guantánamo

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The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks has begun releasing thousands of secret documents from the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay that reveal the Bush and Obama administrations knowingly imprisoned more than 150 innocent men for years without charge. In dozens of cases, senior U.S. commanders were said to have concluded that there was no reason for the men to have been transferred to Guantánamo. Among the innocent prisoners were an 89-year-old Afghan villager and a 14-year-old boy who had been kidnapped. Some men were imprisoned at Guantánamo simply because they wore a popular model of Casio watches, which had been used as timers by al-Qaeda. The documents also reveal that the journalist Sami al-Hajj was held at Guantánamo for six years partly in order to be interrogated about his employer, the Al Jazeera network. Al-Hajj’s file said he was sent to Guantánamo in order to “provide information on … the Al-Jazeera news network’s training programme, telecommunications equipment, and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan.” For more, we speak with journalist Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A massive trove of documents obtained by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks have revealed that the U.S. believed many of those held at Guantánamo were innocent or low-level operatives.The U.S. military dossiers, obtained by the New York Times and The Guardian of Britain, reveal how many prisoners were taken to the Guantánamo prison and held captive for years on the flimsiest grounds. In some cases, prisoners were held on the basis of confessions extracted by maltreatment.

The 759 Guantánamo files, classified as, quote, “secret,” cover almost every prisoner since the camp was opened in 2002. More than two years after President Obama ordered the closure of the prison, 172 are still there.

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said it was unwise for Congress to have blocked the administration from bringing Guantánamo detainees to trial in the United States.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Members of Congress have intervened and imposed restrictions blocking the administration from bringing any Guantánamo detainees to trial in the United States, regardless of the venue. As the President has said, those unwise and unwarranted restrictions undermine our counterterrorism efforts and could harm our national security.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Attorney General Eric Holder speaking earlier this month.

To discuss the massive leak of secret documents and what they reveal about Guantánamo , we’re joined by Andy Worthington, journalist, author of the book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. He’s co-director of the film Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.

Andy, no, we’re not having you on in the London studio to talk about the royal wedding —

ANDY WORTHINGTON: I’m very glad.

AMY GOODMAN: —- but to talk about Guantánamo. I know that’s a real exception right now, as most networks are all based there for the week. Maybe there will be some -—


AMY GOODMAN: Maybe there will be some good coverage, then, of Guantánamo. But, Andy, what about the significance? What do you think is the most significant revelations? You’ve stayed up most of the night going through these documents.

ANDY WORTHINGTON: Well, absolutely. I mean, I have been working with WikiLeaks and with media partners, including the Washington Post and McClatchy in the U.S. and various places in Europe, over the last month, going through these documents, and they really are, you know, very detailed. I think — you know, I think in the broad picture is that they confirm what people who’ve studied Guantánamo for years have always maintained. And some of this has been — has come out in Pentagon documents that have been released over the years officially. But you know how it goes: people forget about things. This has been going on for such a long time. But all along, it’s been apparent that there’s only been a very small number of genuine terrorist suspects at Guantánamo and that the rest of the people included large numbers of innocent people who were swept up because there was no situation set up to screen prisoners, because prisoners were being bought for bounty payments, and that there were a lot of low-level Taliban foot soldiers in there, as well, which is really at the heart of the failure of the war on terror to make a distinction between, on the one hand, terrorists and, on the other hand, soldiers in a military conflict. So it confirms that.

In a more detailed way, I think what people will have to spend some time looking at is that it looks as though there’s a lot of information in here about evidence against prisoners. But when people look at it closely, they will, I hope, discover that in a lot of cases the same witnesses are coming up. Now, some of these are high-value detainees who were held and tortured in secret CIA prisons. So, therefore, we know that their testimony is suspicious — Abu Zubaydah, for example, who was waterboarded 83 times. There are also witnesses who are notorious within Guantánamo as being informants. They secured preferential treatment through, essentially, providing information about their fellow prisoners, often in significant numbers. Now, these stories have come out a bit in the past. They’ve also come out in the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions. But we’ve never seen it laid out like this before, with such detail provided about essentially a blank slate in which the U.S. administration filled in information about these prisoners through the interrogation of other prisoners, using torture, coercion and bribery in very many cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Osama bin Laden, the story in here of him needing $7,000, which, well, indicates he did not have a lot of funds around 2001.

ANDY WORTHINGTON: Right, yeah. Well, you know, there are so many stories in here that will take a lot of analysis, Amy, obviously, to discover what’s true and what isn’t. I mean, you know, I do really think fundamentally this is a — this is a house of cards, and it’s very difficult to know what to believe without examining it closely. And that’s why I say that we need to — we need to try and have some guidelines, where we know that certain people’s testimony is unreliable. I think, you know, in other cases, maybe in some of these things we’re never going to quite find out what the story is. I mean, certainly, I think when you’re dealing with foot soldiers being dressed up as terrorists, we’ve got a situation of hysteria, I think, really, which has been played by the Republicans, also by Democrats. The fear card about Guantánamo has become very popular. And really, this should do away with that and reveal to people that there’s a small knot of terrorists to deal with, but that with everybody else, everybody’s been getting very exaggerated here about things.

So, you know, I think we will be able to examine, in a lot of ways, what’s true and what isn’t. But in other cases, this is what happens when you do what the Bush administration did, and what President Obama has found so difficult to close, which is to throw away international laws and treaties regarding the detention of prisoners in wartime, confuse soldiers with terrorists, deny rights to all of them, set up an illegal offshore interrogation center — all with no idea about what you’re going to do with it in the end. And sadly, along the way, what we’ve seen happen and what these files reveal in detail is that when people didn’t have anything to tell, because in so many cases they were nobodies, the Bush administration actually introduced torture techniques in an attempt to extract information from them, believing wrongly in so many cases that they were trained to resist interrogation by al-Qaeda. And that’s, you know, the really depressing heart, I think, of what’s been revealed here.

AMY GOODMAN: Among the revelations, senior U.S. commanders conclude in dozens of cases there’s no reason recorded for transfer. That’s talking about the farmers, the chefs, the drivers, who were rounded up or even sold to U.S. forces and transferred across the world.

ANDY WORTHINGTON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the thing is that, you know, what’s interesting in a historical sense, really, Amy, is that we’re getting for the first time any information from the government about the first 200 prisoners who were released. Now, you know, we’ve known for years what their names are and when there were released. And in some cases, stories have come about because they’ve been interviewed, or when they released, they spoke to the media. In the vast majority of cases, nothing has emerged. Now we’re getting the details. And now we can understand why it was that Major General Dunlavey, who was the commander of Guantánamo in 2002, complained about the “Mickey Mouse” prisoners, the number of “Mickey Mouse” prisoners, as he described them, that he was being sent from Afghanistan. Here they are. Here are the farmers and the cooks and the taxi drivers and all these people who should never have been rounded up in the first place and who ended up in Guantánamo because there was no screening process.

These documents, interestingly, the administration — the authorities at Guantánamo give their reasons for why the prisoners were sent to Guantánamo. And they say, “Oh, it’s so that we can investigate more of this and that.” And there are some ludicrous examples. There’s a British man who was imprisoned by the Taliban, and it’s to find out more about the Taliban’s way of interrogating prisoners. Poor man. He should never have been sent there. But, you know, what’s kind of behind all this about these — the ways of these stories coming out is just much more alarming, really. It’s really profoundly disturbing, I think, the extent to which this has been happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Sami al-Hajj, the Al Jazeera reporter who was detained for more than six years.

ANDY WORTHINGTON: Well, Sami, Sami al-Hajj, who was a cameraman with Al Jazeera, had been in Afghanistan covering the U.S. occupation, had then gone to renew his visa, to deal with other things in Pakistan, had everything officially in place to go back into Afghanistan, is then stopped on the border and taken by U.S. forces to Bagram. And, you know, as he has always said and his lawyers said over the years before his release in 2009, everything that happened to him in Guantánamo was about the administration trying to secure information about the workings of Al Jazeera. So, nothing to do with terrorism. You know, we know the Bush administration regarded Al Jazeera as the enemy almost, so it fits in that context. But, you know, what an appalling thing to be doing, to be holding somebody for all those years and interrogating them coercively, using torture, in an attempt to find a way to try and undermine Al Jazeera, the network.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it is astounding. I mean, for people in the United States to understand, a top reporter from NBC or CNN or ABC being held for years in a prison somewhere, being questioned about those — you know, someone at NBC being questioned about General Electric — right? — which partly owns NBC.

ANDY WORTHINGTON: Yeah, right. Well, no, exactly. But, you know, I mean, as we were discussing before with the — you know, with all of the wrong people ending up in Guantánamo and all the spurious reasons for sending people there — and I actually think that they came second, Amy, because the thing that I meant to say before was that, you know, there was an interrogator called Chris Mackey — it’s a pseudonym, but he wrote a book about — he was a senior interrogator in Afghanistan — about the process of prisoners being sent to Guantánamo. And he said there effectively was no screening process. What happened was that all the lists of prisoners were sent to the top brass who were in Camp Doha in Kuwait. And their instructions came back: every single Arab that ends up in U.S. custody has to be sent to Guantánamo. And for the first six months, that applied to every Afghan, as well. So, essentially, there was no screening process. Everybody went to Guantánamo. Nothing was known about them. And then they had to invent these reasons as to why they were holding them. And that’s what I think is in those documents. They say, “Oh yeah, we sent this person here to exploit them for intelligence on such and such.” They actually grafted that on afterwards. When they arrived, they didn’t even know who most of these people were.

AMY GOODMAN: The Casio watches, very quickly?

ANDY WORTHINGTON: The Casio watch, which dozens of prisoners were accused of having, was supposed to be something that was used to trigger improvised electronic devices, roadside bombs. I mean, in fact, you know, it’s a Casio watch that was an incredibly popular model. So, you know, just another spurious basis, ways of inventing why you were holding people.

I mean, the same thing happened with missionary organizations. Jamaat al-Tabligh, for example, a huge missionary organization, millions of members worldwide, all the prisoners accused of being involved with the missionary organization, they said it was a front for terrorism. It’s like accusing the Catholic Church of being a front for terrorism because of the IRA, for example. And it’s not on any list of prescribed organizations by the State Department or any other U.S. government organization. It’s symptomatic of how, in Guantánamo, it was a world unto itself, and they — really, the military invented any kind of reason that it could to hold people.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Worthington, finally, now you have Guantánamo continuing, though President Obama first said it would close, one of the first statements he made when he took office. And then you have the Obama administration deciding to try five men accused of the 9/11 attacks before a military commission at Guantánamo instead of a civilian court. The significance of this? We have 30 seconds.

ANDY WORTHINGTON: Well, I think — you know, I think that the documents about these high-value detainees — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — we saw from the indictment that was dropped, because the federal court trial was blocked essentially by Republicans in the Senate, but also by Democrats — the federal court trial, there seems to be a case. Surely, this should be allowed to go ahead. These are the men allegedly responsible for the 9/11 attacks —- what this was all supposed to be about, Amy, the reason that the Bush administration threw all laws to the four winds, broke all laws and treaties, and created this abomination, which still exists. It’s still an abomination at Guantánamo, people held as though they were still enemy combatants, with no rights. It’s really distressing. And I wish that there could be a federal court trial -—

AMY GOODMAN: Four seconds.

ANDY WORTHINGTON: — for these men.

AMY GOODMAN: Andy Worthington, thanks so much for being with us.

ANDY WORTHINGTON: Thank you, Amy. Thank you.

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