For Obama, WikiLeaks' Guantánamo files come at bad time

Now that the Obama administration has abandoned the idea of civilian-court trials for detainees, it wants to promote confidence in the military tribunal system at Guantánamo. But new WikiLeaks documents paint a picture of 'questionable' charges.

Joe Skipper/REUTERS/file
A US Army guard stands in a corridor of cells in Camp Five, a detention facility at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba, Sept. 4, 2007.

The public release of more than 700 secret documents related to detainees at Guantánamo by WikiLeaks is complicating Obama administration plans to shore up the international image of the detention camp and eventually conduct military commission trials there.

The newly disclosed documents are raising fresh questions about the reliability of US government evidence against the detainees at precisely the time White House and Defense Department officials are trying to build international confidence in the largely untested military tribunal system at Guantánamo.

The documents provide behind-the-scenes access to the US government’s own assessments of detainees who were once branded by Bush administration officials as the “worst of the worst.”

In a statement on its website, WikiLeaks said its analysis of the documents shows that much of the information used to justify continued detention of individuals at Guantánamo was supplied by unreliable sources or those who made statements under coercion or during alleged torture.

“What the Guantánamo Files reveal, primarily, is that only a few dozen prisoners are genuinely accused of involvement in terrorism,” according to analysts at WikiLeaks. “The rest,” the statement continues, “were either innocent men and boys, seized by mistake, or Taliban foot soldiers unconnected to terrorism.”

Since it opened in early 2002, Guantánamo has housed 776 detainees. Of those, 604 have been transferred to their home country or resettled in a third country. Some 172 detainees remain.

New details on terror leaders

The WikiLeaks documents include new details about alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.

A 15-page report on Mr. al-Nashiri says he is “so dedicated to jihad that he reportedly received injections to promote impotence and recommended the injections to others so more time could be spent on the jihad (rather than being distracted by women).”

The new information about Mr. Mohammed is contained in a 12-page report on Majid Khan, a Pakistani national whose family owned a gas station in Baltimore.

The report says Mohammed was attempting to assess Mr. Khan’s usefulness as an Al Qaeda operative. He wanted to know whether Khan was willing to “die for the cause.”

In March 2002, Mohammed gave Khan an explosive vest to wear in a mosque where Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was to attend a prayer service. Khan was told to get as close as he could to Musharraf before triggering the vest.

It was only a test. Musharraf was not there and the vest was not loaded with explosives.

'Secret' documents show evidence

WikiLeaks said it expects to release more Guantánamo documents at intervals within the next month.

The released documents are marked “Secret/Noforn,” meaning that they are classified as “secret” and may not be shared with foreign officials.

They are memoranda written by the detention facility commanders at Guantánamo between 2002 and 2008 discussing each detainee – including identifying sources of intelligence information.

Although the memos do not identify which of those sources were subject to aggressive interrogation tactics or alleged torture, much of that information is known from other reports. When pieced together with the newly released documents, the resulting overview provides a clearer picture of the Bush administration’s war against Al Qaeda.

The release of the documents comes shortly after the Obama administration conceded that it would put Mohammed and others on trial before special military commissions at Guantánamo rather than in federal courtrooms in the US with full constitutional and procedural protections.

Much of the evidence and sources revealed in the Guantánamo memoranda would routinely be excluded from a trial in federal court. In contrast, Guantánamo
commission rules allow a military judge more leeway to decide whether to admit hearsay evidence or evidence that was allegedly obtained under coercive conditions.

The released documents are believed to be part of a cache allegedly sent to WikiLeaks by Army Pfc. Bradley Manning. He is awaiting trial and is being held at the prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

White House condemns leak

White House Spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration condemned the release of classified information “in the strongest possible terms.”

Mr. Carney declined to comment on the quality of intelligence in the released documents. But he noted that none of the documents reflected work completed during the Obama administration.

In early 2009, the president created a task force to review the evidence against each detainee to determine who could be released, who would face trial, and who would be detained indefinitely without trial.

“You should not assume that the conclusions of that [Obama administration] task force were the same as the conclusions in those briefs about individual detainees,” Carney said.

Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, called on the Obama administration to release its task force assessments. He said the more recent assessments would help give foreign governments, Congress, and the US public a more accurate view of those who remain at Guantánamo.

“The broad picture these documents paint is not of men 'too dangerous to release,' " Mr. Warren said, “but of a government attempting to justify its mistakes and detaining, interrogating, and abusing men for years based on bad evidence, hearsay from self interested jailhouse informers, and sheer incompetence.”

He added: “The files show a breakdown in accountability for what was done to these men and a lack of transparency that continues to this day.”

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, offered a similar critique. “These documents are remarkable because they show just how questionable the government’s basis has been for detaining hundreds of people, in some cases indefinitely, at Guantánamo,” she said.

“The one-sided assessments are rife with uncorroborated evidence, information obtained through torture, speculation, errors, and allegations that have been proven false,” Ms. Shamsi said.

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