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Presumed Intelligent

[Image from Propublica.org] [Image from Propublica.org]

If you gave an exam with 779 questions and the test taker got anywhere from 36 to 84 of the answers “not totally wrong”—not 36 to 84 percent but actual answers—you would regard said test taker as not the master of this domain, right? Of course, right. (You might even advise said taker to find another major.) Well, that’s the US government’s score on the test that is the Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) detention facility. The total number of foreign prisoners ever detained at GTMO is 779. Or rather, 778 foreigners plus one naturalized American (that latter, Yaser Hamdi, was moved stateside to a brig and released to Saudi Arabia in 2004 on the condition that he give up his US citizenship). 

What was the point of this GTMO test that the government designed for itself and then failed? The purpose was “actionable intelligence,” as in, elicitation of; to compensate for lack of.  In the context of the “war on terror,” anyone taken into US custody—captured by US forces in Afghanistan, sold for bounty by the Northern Alliance, kidnapped by the CIA from as far afield as The Gambia—was presumed intelligent, as in imagined by decision makers to actually or possibly possess intelligence that could be elicited to Keep America Safe.  

And what was the theory guiding intelligence elicitation at GTMO? Alchemy. Rub and squeeze common metals to transmogrify them into gold. Dialectics for dummies. Inside that acorn is an oak tree which will materialize with the right amount of pressure and time. By December 2001, before the first prisoners had even arrived, Pentagon officials were exploring how to “reverse engineer” SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, extraction) techniques that had been developed during the Cold War to train US soldiers to withstand torture in case they were captured by regimes that don’t adhere to the Geneva Conventions. The assumption was that these caches of intelligence could be broken open by subjecting them to processes that would cause disorientation, debility, and dread. Forced nakedness, protracted sleep deprivation, stress positions, “environmental manipulation” (i.e., extremes in temperature, noise, and light). 

Mythology.  All GTMO prisoners, it was claimed, were “the worst of the worst.” To be in US custody at GTMO was to be a terrorist, and terrorists have no legal rights so they could be held incommunicado indefinitely—and rubbed and squeezed, metaphorically speaking. What happens when the test makers are thinking chemistry but doing alchemy? Like Galileo’s inquisitors, they stifle the truth because the myth has already been packaged for sale. When a senior Arabic-speaking CIA analyst was dispatched to GTMO in August 2002 to do an assessment of the detainees, he concluded that at least half and probably a much higher percentage had no ties to or meaningful information about al-Qaeda or the Taliban. He recommended a formal review process to determine who should be released and repatriated, and noted that continued imprisonment and interrogation of innocent people could constitute war crimes. John Bellinger, then serving as the National Security Agency’s top lawyer, scheduled a meeting with White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to discuss the analyst’s recommendations, but David Addington, Vice-President Dick Cheney’s counsel, canceled the meeting, declaring: “No, there will be no review. The President has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it.”

How many acorns were converted into oak trees of intelligence? David Rose, a British investigative journalist who interviewed numerous counterterrorism officials from the US and elsewhere, reported that their conclusions were unanimous: “[N]ot only have coercive [interrogation] methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale…, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts.” The 2008 report by the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee rendered its own harsh judgment that the use of aggressive techniques and the redefining of law to create the appearance of their legality “damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority.” The "intelligent design" of GTMO had evolved into a blight.

When the Bush administration left office, 532 of the 779 had been released, and another five had died in custody (three under highly suspicious circumstances). Three prisoners had been prosecuted under Bush: David Hicks, an Australian convert to Islam, and Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, were already free by the end of 2008, and there was no pretention that they had ever been big terrorists; Ali al-Bahlul, an al-Qaeda propagandist, had been sentenced to life. Of the 242 who remained at GTMO on the day Barack Obama became president, now only 176 remain, of whom 59 had been cleared by the previous administration for release (as in, “oops,” our bad), and one subsequently committed suicide. The Obama administration task force which reviewed the “intelligence” on these detainees determined that 98 more should be released (oops 2.0), 48 (or possibly now 49) could not be prosecuted but should not be released and hence could/would/should be held indefinitely without trial (oops squared), and 36 could or might be prosecuted. In August, Ibrahim al-Qosi, bin Laden’s cook, was convicted in a plea bargain deal, the details of which remain secret. 

Of the six accused of having played a role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, one—Muhammad al-Qahtani (the alleged “20th hijacker)—was deemed unprosecutable because he was so badly tortured. The other five, including self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, are in prosecutorial limbo because the Obama administration’s plan to bring them to trial in New York (the scene of the crime) blew up in the face of political opposition. On August 26, according to the Washington Post, the Obama administration filed court papers for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of being a plotter in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, stating that there are no charges pending or contemplated. Perhaps this is because Al-Nashiri, who was held for several years in CIA black sites, was death threatened by interrogators using a gun and an electric drill. Of the habeas cases for GTMO prisoners as of July 30, the government had lost 37 out of 52, and approximately 50 more are pending.

So that’s how the government scored on its GTMO test: 36 + 48 = 84 “not totally wrong” answers to the question of who’s bad. And the intelligence quotient?  Well, until there is a true and thorough accounting of what really happened at GTMO, it’s still a guessing game.

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