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Gitmo detainees of little security value { June 21 2004 }

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June 21, 2004
U.S. Said to Overstate Value of Guantánamo Detainees

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba, June 19 — For nearly two and a half years, American officials have maintained that locked within the steel-mesh cells of the military prison here are some of the world's most dangerous terrorists — "the worst of a very bad lot," Vice President Dick Cheney has called them.

The officials say information gleaned from the detainees has exposed terrorist cells, thwarted planned attacks and revealed vital intelligence about Al Qaeda. The secrets they hold and the threats they pose justify holding them indefinitely without charge, Bush administration officials have said.

But as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on the legal status of the 595 men imprisoned here, an examination by The New York Times has found that government and military officials have repeatedly exaggerated both the danger the detainees posed and the intelligence they have provided.

In interviews, dozens of high-level military, intelligence and law-enforcement officials in the United States, Europe and the Middle East said that contrary to the repeated assertions of senior administration officials, none of the detainees at the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay ranked as leaders or senior operatives of Al Qaeda. They said only a relative handful — some put the number at about a dozen, others more than two dozen — were sworn Qaeda members or other militants able to elucidate the organization's inner workings.

While some Guantánamo intelligence has aided terrorism investigations, none of of it has enabled intelligence or law-enforcement services to foil imminent attacks, the officials said. Compared with the higher-profile Qaeda operatives held elsewhere by the C.I.A., the Guantánamo detainees have provided only a trickle of intelligence with current value, the officials said. Because nearly all of that intelligence is classified, most of the officials would discuss it only on the condition of anonymity.

"When you have the overall mosaic of all the intelligence picked up all over the world, Guantánamo provided a very small piece of that mosaic," said a senior American official who has reviewed the intelligence in detail. "It's been helpful and valuable in certain areas. Was it the mother lode of intelligence? No."

In September 2002, eight months after the detainees began to arrive in Cuba, a top-secret study by the Central Intelligence Agency raised questions about their significance, suggesting that many of the accused terrorists appeared to be low-level recruits who went to Afghanistan to support the Taliban or even innocent men swept up in the chaos of the war, current and former officials who read the assessment said.

Nearly two years later, military officials said, the evidence against many of the detainees is still so sparse that investigators have been able to deliver cases for military prosecution against only 15 of the suspects, 6 of whom have already been designated as eligible for trial by President Bush. Investigators are now preparing 35 to 40 other cases for the military tribunals, those officials said.

In interviews, officials at Guantánamo and in the Pentagon defended the intelligence-gathering effort and said it continued to produce useful information. "Every single day we get some piece of information that's relevant to now," said Steve Rodriguez, who oversees the interrogation teams at the base.

Officials said the intelligence had allowed them to piece together a more detailed picture of Al Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001, including how young jihadis were recruited and screened, how the organization moved funds and how it related to other militant groups. They said some were important Qaeda operatives, including financiers, a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and — a recent discovery — a militant who they say helped recruit 9/11 hijackers.

Yet even as he argued the importance of that information, the commander of the task force that runs the Guantánamo prison, Brig. Gen. Jay W. Hood, acknowledged disappointment among some senior officials in Washington.

"The expectations, I think, may have been too high at the outset," he said. "There are those who expected a flow of intelligence that would help us break the most sophisticated terror organization in a matter of months. But that hasn't happened."

In recent weeks, the Pentagon has initiated a broad study of prison operations, including an examination of the criteria used to determine which detainees are held there, officials at Guantánamo said. "Everything is on the table," said Col. Tim Lynch, the chief of staff at Guantánamo.

The Pentagon's determination to hold the detainees as "enemy combatants" — beyond the reach of United States law and unbound by the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war — has also come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the scandal over abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Defense Department officials have acknowledged that American jailers in Iraq, under pressure to produce better intelligence, adapted some new, more aggressive interrogation techniques that were approved by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld for use at Guantánamo.

While refusing to discuss specifics, Pentagon officials called the interrogation methods used at Guantánamo humane and said they had applied more severe methods only sparingly. In at least one of those cases, they said, the techniques prompted an important Qaeda member to give up vital information.

But new details of that case, which involved a 26-year-old Saudi man who apparently tried unsuccessfully to enter the United States as the 20th hijacker in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, call some of those assertions into question.

Several officials familiar with the case said that for months, no one at Guantánamo even knew who the detainee, Mohamed al-Kahtani, was and that he was identified only after the Federal Bureau of Investigation stepped in. The officials also said that the harsher interrogation methods used against him were largely unsuccessful, that he had little sense of other Qaeda plots, and that he had been most forthcoming under more subtle persuasion.

Even now, officials acknowledge that they have been unable to get any information from at least 60 detainees — including in some cases their identities. Those uncertainties, the officials said, leave open the possibility that more serious terrorists may be among Guantánamo's detainees.

"We weren't sure in the beginning what we had; we're not sure today what we have," said Gen. James T. Hill, the head of the Army's Southern Command. "There are still people who do not talk to us. We could have the keys to the kingdom and not know it."

The problems of collecting information about the detainees have also hampered their screening for possible release. As a result, some of the men are being held apparently as much for what officials do not know about them as for what they do.

Officials said they had cautiously vetted the 146 detainees who have been freed, including the 16 who had been transferred to the custody of their home governments. Even so, at least a handful of serious mistakes have already been made.

New accounts from officials in Afghanistan and the United States indicate that at least 5 of the 57 Afghan detainees released have returned to the battlefield as Taliban commanders or fighters. Some of the five have been involved in new attacks on Americans, officials in southern Afghanistan said, including a notorious Taliban commander, Mullah Shahzada, who was reportedly killed in a recent accident.

American and foreign officials have also grown increasingly concerned about the prospect that detainees who arrived at Guantánamo representing little threat to the United States may have since been radicalized by the conditions of their imprisonment and others held with them.

"Guantánamo is a huge problem for Americans," a senior Arab intelligence official familiar with its operations said. "Even those who were not hard-core extremists have now been indoctrinated by the true believers. Like any other prison, they have been taught to hate. If they let these people go, these people will make trouble."

First Wave

Initial Screenings Were Flawed

As the Taliban government crumbled, American officials braced themselves for what they expected would be waves of hardened terrorists captured in the Afghanistan war. Military officials said they had culled the most dangerous of the roughly 10,000 prisoners caught there and shipped them to Guantánamo Bay.

"These are people who would gnaw through hydraulic lines at the back of a C-17 to bring it down," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as the first 20 shackled prisoners arrived in Cuba on Jan. 11, 2002.

The first makeshift prison at Guantánamo, called Camp X-Ray, was built and run accordingly. Inmates were dressed in Day-Glo orange jump suits and shackled whenever they were moved, their eyes covered by blacked-out goggles or hoods. Fearing that the terrorists among them might somehow seek revenge, officials instructed military police guards to cover their name badges and avoid any mention of their families, hometowns or outside jobs.

"We really didn't have a good feel for who we were dealing with," Gen. Rick Baccus, who took over command of the military police units two months after the camp opened, said in an interview. "We had to err on the side of security."

But almost immediately, questions began to emerge — in Afghanistan, at Guantánamo and eventually in Washington — about the pedigrees of some of the men and why they had been selected to go to Cuba.

At a sprawling detention camp at the airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, military intelligence officers, F.B.I. agents and others scrambled vainly to keep up with the torrent of prisoners, officers who served there said, making it nearly impossible to weed out the most dangerous.

"It was like trying to catch guys as they ran by," a former Kandahar interrogator recalled. "Some you were going to miss."

C.I.A. operatives took their pick of prisoners turned over by commanders of the Afghan Northern Alliance. They also took custody of some military prisoners in whom they had interest, military officers said.

"Anybody who we thought was going to have significant value we had priority in debriefing," said a former senior C.I.A. official. "We focused on the individuals we got in Afghanistan and elsewhere who we thought were linchpins in the process. D.O.D. got stuck processing the rest."

Officials of the Department of Defense now acknowledge that the military's initial screening of the prisoners for possible shipment to Guantánamo was flawed. It was not until hundreds of detainees had arrived here that the classified criteria even referred directly to the threat that they might represent, military officials said.

But some clues were obvious. Some of the detainees were elderly or infirm. One of those was Faiz Muhammad, a genial old man with a long wispy beard whom interrogators nicknamed "Al Qaeda Claus." Another, who was able to make the trip only after extensive medical care from Army doctors in Afghanistan, quickly became known as "Half-Dead Bob."

"You had a group of people who didn't come with ID cards, who weren't wearing uniforms, who were of all kinds of different nationalities, gathered up off various parts of the battlefield in a very chaotic environment," General Hill, the Southern Command chief, recalled. "We were all in very uncharted waters."

A former secretary of the Army, Thomas E. White, who supervised a team of senior Pentagon officers at Guantánamo, said he was told by a senior military official at the base on an early visit that only a third to a half of the detainees appeared to be of some value and that sorting through them would be a considerable problem.

In late summer 2002, a senior C.I.A. analyst with extensive experience in the Middle East spent about a week at the prison camp observing and interviewing dozens of detainees, said officials who read his detailed memorandum.

While the survey was anecdotal, those officials said the document, which contained about 15 pages, concluded that a substantial number of the detainees appeared to be low-level militants, aspiring holy warriors who had rushed to Afghanistan to defend the Taliban, or simply innocents in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Senior military officials now readily acknowledge that many members of the intelligence team initially sent to Guantánamo were poorly prepared to sort through the captives. During the first half of 2002, they said, almost none of the Army interrogators had any substantial background in terrorism, Al Qaeda or other relevant subjects.

One Army intelligence reservist had previously been managing a Dunkin' Donuts. Many younger Army interrogators had never questioned a real prisoner before. As in Afghanistan, interrogators at Guantánamo asked the same basic questions again and again, many former detainees recalled.

"They asked me, `Do you know the Taliban? Do you know Mullah Muhammad Omar? Do you know bin Laden?' " said Jan Muhammad, 37, a farmer from Helmand Province who said he had been forcibly conscripted into the Taliban. "I said, `I have never seen bin Laden; I have not even seen bin Laden's car driving past.' "

Interpreters were in such short supply that the Army turned to private contractors, most of whom knew nothing about intelligence. The Southern Command, responsible for military operations in Latin America, had no particular experience with Al Qaeda or Afghanistan, either. Nonetheless, its intelligence analysts often rewrote reports on the detainees as they saw fit, former interrogators complained.

One of the few American intelligence sectors to show any early interest in the detainees was an obscure defense intelligence unit that traced weapons around the world, one interrogator said. As a result, interrogators were required to question detainees about the serial numbers on rifles they had used and the markings on their bullets. "Of course, they had no idea," the interrogator said.

Military intelligence units at Guantánamo managed to solve some of the shortcomings, gathering available experts — a Lebanese-born F.B.I. counterterrorism specialist and an Afghan interpreter, for example — and having them conduct a daylong seminar on Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other relevant subjects.

But senior defense officials grew frustrated with the shortage of compelling information. "At the beginning, the process was broken everywhere," said Lt. Col. Anthony Christino III, a recently retired Army intelligence officer who specialized in counterterrorism and was familiar the Guantánamo intelligence. "The quality of the screening, the quality of the interrogations and the quality of the analysis were all very poor. Efforts were made to improve things, but after decades of neglect of human intelligence skills, it can't be fixed in a few years."

Defense officials ultimately ordered a broad review of the intelligence-gathering effort. That assessment, in September 2002, led to a series of changes including a major overhaul of intelligence databases and the addition of 30 days of basic training for interrogators and analysts at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., a course quickly nicknamed "Terrorism 101."

Around the same time, faced with continuing resistance from many detainees, some military intelligence officers urged that they be allowed to take advantage of the suspension of Geneva Conventions to try more coercive methods — a step that led to bitter conflicts between military intelligence members and military criminal investigators assigned to prepare cases for the tribunals.

"As time went on, people wanted to do more," a senior officer who served there said. "The detainees were resistant. They knew we weren't going to torture them. So we needed to come up with a Plan B for the small group of people who wouldn't talk and who we thought did have intelligence."

The 20th Hijacker

It Took Months to Identify Kahtani

For interrogators at Guantánamo looking to score a high-profile intelligence victory, Mr. Kahtani, the Saudi who was the so-called 20th hijacker, appeared to be their man. In the end, though, his case instead came to illustrate some of the problems they faced in determining who they were holding and what they knew.

According to several officials familiar with the case, military intelligence officers had no idea who the young detainee was when he arrived in Cuba from Afghanistan, where he had been captured on the battlefield in December 2001. For some weeks, the officials said, Mr. Kahtani — like most of the detainees — refused to cooperate with interrogators, withholding his name and denying their suspicions that he was Saudi.

Then, in July 2002, a routine check by F.B.I. agents matched his fingerprints to a thumbprint from a man who had been turned back by an immigration official after flying into Orlando International Airport in Florida from London on Aug. 3, 2001, without a return ticket or hotel reservation.

Members of the F.B.I. unit investigating the Sept. 11 attacks were immediately intrigued, officials said. On that same day in August 2001, they noted, toll records showed calls from a pay phone at the Orlando airport to Mustafa al-Hawsawi, a Qaeda member in the United Arab Emirates who served as a logistical coordinator for the attacks, the officials said.

Checking surveillance camera recordings for that day, the agents found that a rental car used by the hijackers' leader, Mohamed Atta, entered an airport parking lot shortly before Mr. Kahtani's Virgin Atlantic flight arrived from London, officials said.

In July 2002, about a week after Mr. Kahtani's identity was discovered, military officials invited the F.B.I. to question him, officials said.

The bureau sent a longtime counterterrorism specialist who is fluent in Arabic and worked extensively on investigations of Al Qaeda. Michael Kortan, an F.B.I. spokesman, declined to comment on the Kahtani case, other than to request that the agent's identity be withheld from publication to ensure his safety.

Over a series of interrogations that extended into the fall of 2002, the agent slowly built a rapport with Mr. Kahtani, approaching him with respect and restraint, officials said. "He prays with them, he has tea with them, and it works," a senior official said, speaking generally of the agent's approach to terrorist suspects.

Mr. Kahtani began to open up, officials said. He disclosed that he attended an important Qaeda planning meeting with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers in Malaysia, in January 2000. Mr. Kahtani also said he had a relative he thought might be living near Chicago.

The relative, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, is believed by officials to have been planted in the United States as a Qaeda "sleeper" agent. He was taken into custody as a material witness shortly after arriving in the country on Sept. 10, 2001, and was later confined to a Naval brig in Charleston, S.C., with two American citizens charged as "enemy combatants," Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi.

One official said that Mr. Kahtani had admitted that he had intended to join the hijackers but that he had given up little or nothing about other Qaeda plans. To some F.B.I. experts, officials said, his ignorance seemed credible: he had been recruited to be what the plotters called a "muscle" hijacker, someone to subdue passengers rather than pilot a plane. Officials said such lower-level operatives were generally only minimally informed even as to the details of attacks in which they would take part.

But military intelligence officials were skeptical, believing that new approaches to Mr. Kahtani might well reveal plans for attacks that were to follow the hijackings or that might have involved Mr. Marri. In late November 2002, Pentagon officials informed the F.B.I. that they would take over interrogations of Mr. Kahtani, an official said.

A list of 17 new interrogation techniques — the first such addition since the Army field manual was issued in 1987 — was approved by Mr. Rumsfeld in early December. Ten of the techniques were used on Mr. Kahtani before complaints from some military officials prompted Mr. Rumsfeld to retract his approval for the more extreme methods, military officials said.

Military officials refused to say which techniques had been used on Mr. Kahtani, but the list, contained in a memo dated Jan. 8, 2003, included hooding prisoners during questioning, placing them in "stress positions" like standing or squatting for up to four hours, aggravating phobias like fear of dogs, and "mild noninjurious physical contact," officials familiar with the memo said. Another detainee was also subjected to methods from the same list, they said.

General Hill, the Southern Command chief, said the tougher techniques used on a detainee he would not identify — but who was identified by others as Mr. Kahtani — "were successful." Last month, a senior Bush administration official told The Times that Mr. Kahtani had provided information to interrogators "about a planned attack and about financial networks to fund terrorist operations." But several other officials disputed that characterization, saying he had not given any new information about plots by Al Qaeda.

Carrot and Stick

Hard Treatment and Favored Treatment

As the Pentagon built a more permanent prison at Guantánamo, fashioning cell blocks from double-wide trailers, the intelligence-gathering effort changed under Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who took over in November 2002.

Military police and intelligence units that had often been rivalrous were fused into a single task force. Interrogators, linguists and analysts were divided into "tiger teams" to interview detainees. Guards were encouraged to observe the prisoners closely, trying to detect the leaders among them so they could be isolated or marked for interrogation. Pentagon officials say the changes produced more intelligence.

Foreign intelligence and law-enforcement agencies were brought in to interview some detainees who refused to talk to American interrogators. Since early last year, intelligence gathered at Guantánamo has been entered into a new database shared by 42 government agencies worldwide.

Questions about the treatment of prisoners linger. Several detainees who have been released said coercive interrogation methods used at Guantánamo had constituted abuse, charges American officials have denied. Among the allegations are complaints of druggings, invasive body searches, sleep deprivation and other mistreatment.

Parkhudin, a 26-year-old Afghan farmer who was held at Guantánamo from February 2003 to March 2004, said in an interview in Khost that he had been questioned for up to 20 hours at a time under uncomfortable conditions at Guantánamo. He said he had been shackled with a small chain during questioning. "They made me stand in front of an air-conditioner," he said. "The wind was very cold."

In a visit to Guantánamo this week, several military officers disputed accounts of harsh treatment and said the most useful interrogation tool was a reward system put into effect in 2003, in which more cooperative detainees were accorded privileges like more comfortable quarters or occasional ocean swims.

The most cooperative detainees are moved to "Camp 4," a medium-security facility where they are permitted to wear white uniforms, rather than the standard prison orange. In Camp 4, cells hold 10 prisoners each, and the detainees can spend up to nine hours a day outside their cells. They can also play soccer, eat meals outside and watch "family oriented" films in their native language. Last week, a half dozen Camp 4 detainees went on a field trip — to the beach.

"We try to keep people hopeful," said Col. Nelson J. Cannon, the commander of the joint detention operation at the base. "Camp 4 is the place they aspire to get to."

In interviews, Mr. Rodriguez, the head of Guantánamo's intelligence-gathering effort, and two interrogators said valuable information continued to be produced. "We've had new openings just in recent weeks," Mr. Rodriguez said. "After two years, my team still has fresh fields to plow."

One morning last week, a reporter was allowed to observe — but not listen to — two interrogations at Guantánamo from behind one-way glass. In one room, an elderly detainee with a long white beard played chess with his interrogator. The chess game was a "reward" for 90 minutes of "fruitful" discussion, an interrogator said. In another room, a detainee in his late 30's wearing an orange jump suit looked despondent as his interrogator spoke calmly to him through an interpreter. In a period lasting nearly 10 minutes, the detainee appeared to say nothing.

Intelligence and law-enforcement officials outside the Defense Department generally agree that the compendium of narrow, personal accounts from detainees has deepened the intelligence sector's historical understanding of Al Qaeda's recruitment and training activities. But there are limits to the historical information.

"It's like going to a prison in upstate to find out what's happening on the streets of New York," a counterterrorism official with knowledge of Guantánamo intelligence said. "The guys in there might know some stuff. But they haven't been part of what's going on for a few years."

Other investigators describe the value of the detainees more narrowly: for hundreds of intelligence and law enforcement officers now working on terrorism, stints at the camp have offered a rare chance to study committed Islamic militants. "We haven't had this broad of access to true believers ever," a senior counterterrorism official said. "It has taught people how to go face-to-face with them. If we see can them as they see themselves, it makes us stronger."

As public criticism of Guantánamo has increased, the Pentagon has intensified its public-relations campaign on the importance of intelligence from the base. General Miller, who left Guantánamo in May to take over prison operations in Iraq, has claimed repeatedly — although without specifics — that the quality of the intelligence gathered from detainees had improved the longer they had been imprisoned.

Paul Butler, who was the senior Pentagon official for detainee policy until recently becoming Mr. Rumsfeld's chief of staff, was even more expansive. At a briefing on Feb. 13, Mr. Butler described the Guantánamo detainees as "very dangerous people" who included "senior Al Qaeda operatives and leaders and Taliban leaders." In the most detailed public accounting yet of important detainees at Guantanamo, he also briefly profiled 10 unidentified Qaeda members or "affiliated" militants. But several senior officials with detailed knowledge of the Guantánamo detainees described Mr. Butler's portrait of the camp as a work of verbal embroidery, saying none of the detainees at the camp could possibly be called a leader or senior operative of Al Qaeda.

Value of Detainees

Some Challenge Claims of Success

Mr. Rumsfeld has repeatedly cited the importance of Guantánamo to the fight against terror, saying the detentions there had helped prevent attacks.

"We are keeping them off the street and out of the airlines and out of nuclear power plants and out of ports across this country and across other countries," he said in a speech in February.

In interviews with reporters, officials have repeatedly pointed to two operations against foreign militants whose success they attributed to interrogations at Guantánamo. One, they said, involved a plot in which Saudi militants in Morocco were to attack British and American ships in the Strait of Gibraltar with small, explosives-laden boats. The other involved breaking up a terrorist cell in Milan that same year.

A closer look at both, however, indicates that the role the Guantánamo information played was overstated, as was the nature of the threat the two cases posed.

According to interviews with European, North African and American officials, small teams of law-enforcement and intelligence officials from both Italy and Morocco visited Guantánamo several times in 2002 and 2003 to interview detainees from those countries.

In the Moroccan case, an important tip came from one of nine Moroccans who were initially held there. In March 2002, the detainee told a Moroccan interrogator about a Saudi man who had recruited young men in Morocco on behalf of Al Qaeda in the late 1990's. The detainee knew the man only by the name "Zuher," an Arab counterterrorism official said. He also provided the full names of the man's Moroccan wife and sister-in-law.

Moroccan investigators were able to track down the sister-in-law. She then pointed the investigators to her brother-in-law, who was living in Morocco.

The authorities quickly began surveillance of the man, whom they identified as Zuher al-Tbaiti, 35. With the help of Saudi intelligence officials, the Moroccans learned that Mr. Tbaiti had attended a Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in the late 1990's and had been in the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan in December 2001, during the United States bombing campaign to kill Mr. bin Laden.

The Moroccan authorities arrested Mr. Tbaiti along with two Saudi associates in June 2002. A Casablanca prosecutor later disclosed that Mr. Tbaiti and his two associates had intended to load a small boat with explosives to attack an American or British warship in a plot modeled after the attack that killed 17 American sailors aboard the American destroyer Cole in October 2000.

Both American and Moroccan officials have at times suggested that the plot was thwarted in its final stages. In recent interviews, however, counterterrorism officials from both countries acknowledged that the Saudis and their Moroccan associates were in the earliest planning stages when they were arrested.

"I don't believe the attacks were anything more than an idea," a senior American official said. "They were far from pulling it off."

What Moroccan investigators did not learn from Guantánamo — or were not particularly interested in — is also revealing.

By the time Moroccan investigators made a second trip to Guantánamo in September 2002, the number of Moroccan prisoners had grown to 18 from 9. Nearly all of them had trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but investigators said only five had any useful information — and that was about recruitment and lin

Tim Golden reported from New York and Washington for this article, and Don Van Natta Jr. from Guantánamo Bay. Reporting was contributed by Carlotta Gall, David Rohde, Lizette Alvarez, Clifford Krauss, Raymond Bonner and Jason Horowitz.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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