By Tim Bearden
On April 24, 2011, hundreds of classified documents regarding the military prison camp maintained by the U.S. Government at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, were released to The New York Times and National Public Radio (NPR). The documents had originally been turned over to WikiLeaks, but both the Times and NPR maintain that WikiLeaks was not their source. Among the documents distributed were the profiles of several prominent inmates of the facility, reports regarding life at the prison, and a “threat matrix” that clarifies how to classify different inmates based upon their individual risk levels. The release of these documents turned out to be a massive embarrassment to the United States and should have been a wake-up call, adding to the growing list of arguments to expedite the termination of the institution. This debate will likely intensify with the gunning down of Osama bin Laden on May 2.
The “threat matrix” in particular exemplifies how unrefined the detainment process has been at the infamous facility. This two-page document outlines whether an inmate should be indefinitely held, transferred somewhere else, or be released, according to his “risk” level and any information the detainee was thought to possess. The document also recommends how to categorize a prisoner into a “risk” level, incorporating vague language such as “he may have been” or “he does not appear,” often making evaluations a subjective endeavor.1 With such an overly simplistic and poorly defined method like the “threat matrix” to characterize the inmates, the final classification of prisoners was largely left to the discretion of the prison guards and their personal, often rudimentary beliefs about the detainees. Even if a prisoner was classified as “low risk,” yet was determined to have high intelligence value, the matrix would recommend that he should remain in captivity at Guantánamo.
Shamefully, documented cases have proven that even this oversimplified matrix was more often than not mishandled. Several reports indicate that innocent men have been incarcerated, and that officials at Guantánamo recorded in the prisoners’ assessments that they were aware of the men’s innocence. Despite this knowledge, these innocent detainees languished in prison for several months.2 Other instances indicated that some dangerous inmates had been incorrectly assessed as low-risk, and were subsequently released. However, cases of innocent detainees were more numerous than cases of released high-risk prisoners. Unfortunately, the high-risk cases distracted the public from the reality of the mass incarceration of innocent people. As Scott Shane and Benjamin Weiser of The New York Times put it, “For every case of an Abdullah Mehsud—someone wrongly judged a minimal threat—there are several instances in which prisoners rated ‘high-risk’ were released and have not engaged in wrongdoing.”3
Such erratic risk analysis likely stems from a document that outlines how to assess the danger posed by a specific prisoner. According to the report, potential signs of danger include wearing a Casio F91W watch, traveling without documents, claiming to be a farmer, cook, or in the honey business, and being uncooperative.4 Another document describes the ways that a detainee might try to obfuscate the results of interrogation sessions. For example, an uncooperative prisoner might summarize answers, speak slowly, and ask an interrogator to repeat their questions.5 These documents render anything and everything suspicious, leading many detainees to be falsely labeled “high-risk.”
Another reason that a detainee may be incorrectly classified is that Guantánamo officials often relied on the testimony of other prisoners to incriminate suspected terrorists. Some of these testimonies might have been given under extreme circumstances such as torture, and other prisoners possibly gave false information as a means of sending officials down the wrong path. The testimony of Abu Zubayda, an Al-Qaeda member who was water-boarded, was used in the assessments of over 100 prisoners, but was later thrown out in several court cases due to Zubayada’s unreliability.6 In other cases, the testimony of mentally ill prisoners have been used in risk assessments, calling into question the validity of their statements and the reports derived from them.7
Other released documents outlined the harsh treatment that some prisoners have endured. The most prominent example was that of Mohammed Qahtani, a Saudi who likely intended to participate in the September 11 attacks, but was not able to. He had been leashed, stripped naked, and forced to urinate on himself in a heinous act of humiliation.8
From problems of habeas corpus, to torture issues, and now to the credibility of the institution to identify suspects correctly, Guantánamo has been the subject of numerous embarrassments for the United States. With this facility prompting so many issues, President Obama needs to fulfill his original pledge and finally shut down the deplorable institution.
References for this article can be found here
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Tim Bearden