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Guantánamo secret files show U.S. often held innocent Afghans

U.S. Army Pfc. Keith Perkins hands lunch to a detainee in F Block in the earliest days of Camp X-Ray in 2002.
U.S. Army Pfc. Keith Perkins hands lunch to a detainee in F Block in the earliest days of Camp X-Ray in 2002. U.S. NAVY

WASHINGTON — Naqibullah was about 14 years old when U.S. troops detained him in December of 2002 at a suspected militant's compound in eastern Afghanistan.

The weapon he held in his hands hadn't been fired, the troops concluded, and he appeared to have been left behind with a group of cooks and errand boys when a local warlord, tipped to the raid, had fled.

A secret U.S. intelligence assessment written in 2003 concluded that Naqibullah had been kidnapped and forcibly conscripted by a warring tribe affiliated with the Taliban. The boy told interrogators that during his abduction he'd been held at gunpoint by 11 men and raped.

Nonetheless, Naqibullah was held at Guantanamo for a full year.

Afghans were the largest group by nationality held at the Guantánamo Bay detention center, an estimated 221 men and boys in all. Yet they were frequently found to have had nothing to do with international terrorism, according to more than 750 secret intelligence assessments that were written at Guantánamo between 2002 and 2009. The assessments were obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy.

In at least 44 cases, U.S. military intelligence officials concluded that detainees had no connection to militant activity at all, a McClatchy examination of the assessments, which cover both former and current detainees, found. The number might be even higher, but couldn't be determined from the information in some assessments, which often were just one or two pages long for Afghans who were released in 2002 and 2003.

Still, it's clear from the U.S. military's own assessments that beyond a core of senior Taliban and extremist commanders, the Afghans were in large part a jumble of conscripts, insurgents, criminals and, at times, innocent bystanders. Just 45 were classified as presenting a high threat level, and only 28 were judged to be of high intelligence value. At least 203 have now been released.

U.S. Department of Defense officials have declined to comment on the contents of the WikiLeaks documents, saying they are stolen property and remain classified.

The records contain no single explanation for why so many Afghans with few links to terrorism came to be held at the prison camps in Cuba, a facility that the George W. Bush administration said was intended to house only the most serious of terrorist suspects.

Anecdotes from the documents suggest that many of the Afghan captives were picked up by mistake. Others were passed along to U.S. troops by Afghan warlords and local militias who gave false information about them in return for bounty payments or to set up a local rival.

There was also a desire by U.S. intelligence analysts, particularly in the scramble after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to cast as wide a net as possible. They were looking to piece together everything from which dirt paths were used to cross between Afghanistan to Pakistan, to the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Afghans became crucial for understanding the lay of the land — and for many it cost them years of their lives in confinement.

For at least three Afghan men, the reason listed for being at Guantánamo was a variation of "knowledge of routes between Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The assessments for at least four others listed as the reason for holding them at Guantánamo their knowledge of the Taliban conscription process — meaning they'd been forced to join the organization.

"I think many of them were used to get what I call associated intelligence — if they knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody," said Emile Nakhleh, the former director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program who visited the prison to assess detainees there in 2002. "They were the living dots of Google Earth in Afghanistan; we were trying to connect the dots."

The documents, however, undermine Guantánamo's carefully cultivated image as a place where each detainee had been vetted before being sent halfway around the world on a journey for which they were blindfolded, deafened with soundproof headphones and kept in diapers.

Among those held, according to the assessments:

  • Haji Faiz Mohammed, a 70-year-old man with senile dementia from Afghanistan's Helmand Province who was detained by U.S. forces during a raid near a mosque where he'd been sleeping. A 2002 memorandum for the commander of U.S. Southern Command, barely more than a page long, said that "There is no reason on the record for detainee being transferred to Guantánamo Bay." Mohammed was shipped home later that year.
  • Sharbat, the only name by which he is identified in the records, was arrested by Afghan soldiers after a roadside bomb exploded. His Guantánamo interrogators determined he was an illiterate shepherd who probably was not connected to the explosion. Three interrogation teams at the U.S. detention center at Bagram Airfield also had recommended that he be released. Instead, Sharbat was sent to Guantánamo in November 2003 and held there until February 2006.
  • Abdul Salaam's file summarized his case by saying that while he'd initially been accused of being a money launderer for militant groups, "after reviewing all of the available documentation, nothing has been found to support this claim. It is highly probable detainee's statements that he and his family are honest business people ... and have never transferred any money for or on behalf of the Taliban or Al Qaeda are truthful." He was held at Guantánamo from October 2002 to February 2006.
  • Khudai Dad may have been a farmer or he may have had a leadership position in the Taliban. It was hard to assess which was true because the schizophrenic was hospitalized at Guantánamo for "acute symptoms of psychosis" after reporting anxiety problems in November 2002 and then referred to the interrogation team for a final session in January 2003.
  • Eight months later, Guantánamo personnel judged him ready for a polygraph examination. It didn't last long. Dad began having hallucinations in the middle of questioning and the polygrapher "determined he was mentally unfit." His March 2004 report didn't note how long he'd been at Guantánamo at that point, but Dad wasn't released until February 2006.

    There are lingering questions, too, about whether those identified in the assessments as a serious threat really belonged at Guantánamo.

    As the post-invasion period began in Afghanistan, militia commanders — some of them with connections to the Taliban and other insurgent groups — began to jockey for power and to place their men in Afghan security units. By all accounts, those men funneled false information about their enemies to U.S. forces.

    While the assessments about Afghan detainees did not often record those details, Guantánamo in one instance appears to have housed both a man handed over by a local security commander in eastern Afghanistan, Hafizullah Shabaz Khaul, and then the commander himself, Abdullah Mujahid. They were sent home on the same day in December 2007.

    Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.

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