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Detainees Transferred Or Freed Despite 'High Risk'

A U.S. military guard carries shackles in preparation for moving a detainee at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
John Moore
Getty Images
A U.S. military guard carries shackles in preparation for moving a detainee at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

An NPR investigation of secret military documents from the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay details the system used to assess how dangerous the detainees would be if released.

More than 160 of the prisoners released or transferred from the Guantanamo detention camp under Presidents Bush and Obama had previously been judged as "likely to pose a threat to the U.S." The decision to release or transfer these detainees, despite their former classification as "high risk," contradicted the Pentagon's own recommendation that prisoners in this category should remain in detention.

The detainee risk profiles and other classified findings are contained in hundreds of secret Guantanamo documents obtained by The New York Times and shared with NPR. The files were part of a trove leaked last year to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, but the Guantanamo files were made available by another source on condition of anonymity. No documents classified as "top secret" were included in the collection.

The assessments were made between 2002 and January 2009.

Among other findings in the documents:

-- Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainees who were famously waterboarded while in CIA detention, are cited as having provided interrogators with information about hundreds of other Guantanamo detainees.

-- One detainee from Yemen, a convicted drug dealer who later affiliated with al-Qaida, informed on so many of his fellow detainees at Guantanamo that authorities there decided the reliability of his information was "in question."

-- A Russian detainee was transferred to the control of Russian authorities, on the basis of assurances that he would be incarcerated back in Russia, only to be released from Russian custody a short time later.

-- A Saudi detainee, who has since been transferred, threatened to arrange the murder of "four or five" Americans in revenge for his imprisonment but offered not to follow through on the threat if he were paid $5 million to $15 million in compensation for his unemployment while at Guantanamo.

Detainees As Security Threats

The classified documents, consisting largely of official "detainee assessments" by the Pentagon's Guantanamo Joint Task Force, suggest that military intelligence officials and counterterrorism analysts sometimes found it difficult to determine whether detainees were truly dangerous. The assignment of detainees to "high," "medium," or "low"-risk categories seems to have been haphazard in some cases. Some intelligence about the detainees came from informants whose credibility was subsequently questioned or was secured under conditions tantamount to torture. Some U.S. federal judges have questioned the reliability of the evidence cited to support the detainee risk assessments.

The large number of detainees who were transferred or released from Guantanamo despite their "high risk" assessment is nonetheless striking. Of 600 detainees known to have been transferred out of Guantanamo since 2002, at least 160 were previously in the high-risk category. The repatriation of more high-risk detainees appears likely.

The Obama administration has not yet named the 89 current Guantanamo detainees it says are due to be transferred, but only about 40 of those still in detention at the camp were assessed as "medium" or "low" security risks as of early 2009, according to the investigation by NPR and The New York Times. Some risk assessments have since been revised. The Obama administration carried out a new review of all Guantanamo detainees after it took office in January 2009, and those reports are not included in the documents reviewed by NPR.

Among the "high risk" detainees who have been transferred from Guantanamo since 2002, NPR and the Times have identified at least a dozen who have returned to terrorism or otherwise reassociated with al-Qaida, including two Saudis who became leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

The repatriation of Guantanamo detainees has been controversial under both the Bush and Obama administrations. Republicans and Democrats alike have opposed the transfer of any Guantanamo detainees to U.S. territory, and some members of Congress want to restrict the U.S. government's leeway in sending current detainees anywhere.

"There's a group there [in Guantanamo] that we all agree never gets let out, and then there's the rest," said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) at a recent congressional hearing. "As you close on that number of folks who should not ever be let go, then you run the risk of letting somebody go who shouldn't be."

In an official statement to NPR and the Times, the Obama administration defended the process of repatriating detainees or transferring them to third countries, despite their former risk assessments. "Both the previous and the current administrations have made every effort to act with the utmost care and diligence in transferring detainees from Guantanamo," the statement said. "Both administrations have made the protection of American citizens the top priority, and we are concerned that the disclosure of these documents could be damaging to those efforts."

The statement said it's "unfortunate" that NPR and the Times and other news organizations are publishing the classified Guantanamo documents. "We strongly condemn the leaking of this sensitive information," the statement said. It was signed by Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell and Ambassador Dan Fried, the State Department's special envoy in charge of negotiating the closure of the Guantanamo facility.

Assessing The Detainees

The classification of Guantanamo detainees by threat level was explained in a classified 2008 memo included in the documents reviewed by NPR. "High risk" detainees were defined as those "likely to pose a threat" if released, and the memo stipulated that such individuals should face continued detention. A demonstrated connection to al-Qaida or the Taliban was among the risk qualifiers, as was an individual's age (young men are said to be "more susceptible to recruitment and lacking valid alternate opportunities"), and an uncooperative attitude.

Detainees assessed to be "medium risk" ("may pose a threat") were noted as candidates for transfer out of Guantanamo, while "low risk" detainees ("unlikely to pose a threat") could possibly be released.

The Guantanamo prisoners were also assessed according to the difficulties they presented "from a detention perspective" and the "intelligence value" of their knowledge. The decisions of whether they should be transferred to the control of another government was influenced by those assessments as well.

The information that went into the assessments came from a variety of sources, including CIA intelligence reports, FBI field interviews and the interrogation of other detainees. In addition to the Pentagon's Joint Task Force at Guantanamo, or JTF-GTMO, another Defense Department group, the Criminal Investigative Task Force, also conducted investigations at Guantanamo. The documents indicate that disagreements between the JTF-GTMO and CITF were not uncommon and may have contributed to uncertainty about how dangerous a detainee may be.

Among the challenges facing the Guantanamo investigators was assessing the veracity of the detainees' own stories. One Yemeni, Ahmed al Hikimi, a former taxi driver with a seventh-grade education, is quoted as claiming that a sheik gave him $1,100 to go to Afghanistan to teach Afghan children to read the Quran. He was captured by Pakistani forces with other Arab men after fleeing from the Tora Bora area of Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had taken refuge.

"Detainee's story about traveling to Afghanistan to teach the [Quran] to children is not credible," the assessment concluded, "based on detainee's lack of religious education and credentials." The Guantanamo investigators noted that another detainee had reported that a Pakistani prison warden had advised the men that under U.S. interrogation they should claim to be in Afghanistan for religious purposes.

Such accounts were so common among the Guantanamo detainees that the Joint Task Force in 2004 issued a four-page advisory memorandum on similar cover stories, titled "Assessment of Afghanistan Travels and Islamic Duties as They Pertain to Interrogation."

Courts Challenge Assessments

The abundance of evidence cited in the Guantanamo documents is compelling, but some of the conclusions about the detainees were later called into question. TheJTF-GTMO assessment of Musab al-Mudwani, a 32-year-old Yemeni, identified him as "an al-Qaida operative who planned to participate in terrorist operations targeting U.S. forces in Karachi, Pakistan, and possibly inside the United States." His intelligence file cites other detainees testifying under interrogation about Mudwani, including one who gave information suggesting Mudwani "was associated with high-level al-Qaida operatives" and another who is said to have told his interrogators that an operative who trained Mudwani in explosives "is concerned that [Mudwani] will talk about him."

When Mudwani filed a habeas corpus petition challenging his detention, however, the judge hearing his case, Thomas F. Hogan, rejected much of the government's argument. Some of the information presented to the court came as a result of "coercive interrogation," he wrote, while other charges struck Hogan as exaggerated. "The record reflects that Petitioner was, at best, a low-level al-Qaida figure," Hogan wrote. "It does not appear he even finished his weapons training. There is no evidence that he fired a weapon in battle or was on the front lines."

The Guantanamo documents suggest that a few individuals, under harsh interrogation themselves or possibly in exchange for preferential treatment, provided so much information about other detainees, or did so under such pressure, that the accuracy of their testimony might be questioned. Abu Zubaydah, who was deprived of medical treatment and pain medication and subjected to numerous waterboarding sessions in an effort to induce his cooperation, is cited as the source of information on many Guantanamo prisoners, including one whose detention was rejected by a federal judge on the grounds that it was based on tainted testimony.

Concerns have also been raised about information provided by Yasim Mohammed Basardah, a Yemeni who is said to have provided details about more than 60 other Guantanamo detainees. Some military investigators expressed doubts about Basardah's accusations against other detainees, wondering how he could know so much about so many. Basardah's JTF-GTMO file, compiled in 2008, hinted at those concerns. "Detainee's firsthand knowledge in reporting remains in question," the document says. "Any information provided should be adequately verified through other sources before being utilized." Basardah was nevertheless rated as having "high" intelligence value, and his risk assessment was lowered from high to medium, "based on detainee's exceptional level of cooperation." In 2010, Basardah resettled in Spain.

The Politics Of Detainee Transfers

The Guantanamo documents do not reveal whether uncertainty about the accuracy of the detainee assessments was a factor in the decision to transfer some high-risk detainees. The files do suggest, however, that political considerations were important. Two countries, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, account for more than half of the detainees transferred from Guantanamo. Of 220 Afghans detained at Guantanamo, all but 19 have been sent home as a show of U.S. support for the Afghan government. Similarly, all but 14 of the 135 Saudis originally detained at Guantanamo have been repatriated.

In 2002, Saudi intelligence officials visited Guantanamo and interviewed Abdallah Faris al Unazi Thani, a Saudi who had been captured with other Arab men at Tora Bora in December 2001. According to his JTF-GTMO file, "the Saudi delegation indicated that the government of Saudi Arabia would be willing to take custody of detainee for possible prosecution as soon as the U.S. determined it no longer wanted to hold him." Despite his status as a high-risk detainee, Guantanamo commanders eventually recommended his transfer, and he left Guantanamo in September 2007.

Such agreements were made with some reluctance. In 2005, Guantanamo commanders softened their previous opposition to transferring another Saudi detainee, Jabir Jubran al Fayfi, but only on the condition that "a satisfactory agreement can be reached that ensures continued detention and allows access to detainee and/or to exploited intelligence." Fayfi was transferred to Saudi custody the following year.

The U.S. willingness to transfer detainees to Saudi custody was based largely on confidence in Saudi Arabia's program to rehabilitate Islamist militants who had previously embraced violence. Saudi authorities had promised to provide former jihadi fighters with religious counseling, a job, a house and a wife. The program was supposed to discourage jihadis from returning to terrorism.

The Saudi program had both successes and notable failures. The Yemen-based wing of al-Qaida, known as AQAP, welcomed allegedly rehabilitated jihadis into its ranks. Saudi authorities now insist that the rehabilitation program is working better, and U.S. officials agree.

The repatriation of Russian detainees at Guantanamo was also arranged in government-to-government negotiations. As with the Saudis, U.S. commanders sought assurances from Russian intelligence officials who visited Guantanamo. Some of those commitments subsequently proved hollow. The JTF-GTMO file on Rasul Kudayev, a Russian national who took up arms with the Taliban in Afghanistan, indicates that Guantanamo commanders agreed to his transfer only after conferring with Russian intelligence officials. "Since the Russian government has agreed to incarcerate this detainee upon his transfer," the document says, "he poses no future threat to the U.S. or its allies." But Kudayev was released from custody almost immediately after his removal from Guantanamo.

Another possible factor in decisions about whether to transfer detainees was their behavior while in detention. Some analysts have suggested that detainees who seemed determined to commit suicide, for example, were more likely to be transferred out of Guantanamo than those who were compliant. Prisoners were regularly evaluated on their conduct in detention and assessed as high, medium, or low threats in terms of the difficulty of detaining them. Tallies were kept of each disciplinary infraction. Some detainees were cited for assaults on their guards, unauthorized communication with other prisoners, and even "inappropriate use of bodily fluids," which generally meant a detainee had collected his own urine and tossed it at a guard.

Hostility toward their captors and toward the United States was carefully documented. Guantanamo commanders, for example, noted that Abdallah Aiza al Matrafi, a 47-year-old Saudi who worked with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and eventually repatriated, told interrogators that "his tribe would ... kidnap four to five Americans at a time and sever their heads" in revenge for his imprisonment. Matrafi's document also notes, somewhat dryly, "these acts could be stopped if detainee received $5 [million] to $15 million as compensation for his unemployment status during detention."

Miscalculations Could Lead To A Return To Terrorism

NPR and The New York Times have documented 42 instances of transferred or released Guantanamo detainees returning to terrorism or insurgent activity or otherwise reassociating with al-Qaida. The Pentagon reports a larger number but has not identified all by name nor described their activity.

Among the former detainees who have returned to the fight are 10 whom Guantanamo commanders considered "high risk" individuals and whose transfer they opposed, as well as two they considered high risk but were willing to repatriate. There were also seven detainees who were judged during their Guantanamo years to present little or no risk to the United States or its allies. Said Ali al Shihri of Saudi Arabia and his brother-in-law Yussef al Shihri were both in the "high risk" category at Guantanamo, but U.S. officials consented to their transfer in the expectation that they could be successfully rehabilitated through the Saudi program. It was a serious miscalculation. Both men were subsequently released and moved to Yemen, where they became active in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Yussef al Shihri, who had expressed a desire for martyrdom while at Guantanamo, was killed in a shootout on the Saudi-Yemen border in October 2009.

In other cases, the miscalculation was in the original judgment of how dangerous a detainee could turn out to be once he was released. Five former detainees from Afghanistan who had been assessed as presenting little or no risk took up arms with the Taliban upon their repatriation. A Kuwaiti detainee, Abdallah al Ajmi, whose JTF-GTMO assessment was scarcely a page and a half long, was characterized as only a "medium" threat, and in 2004 Guantanamo commanders recommended his transfer to Kuwait. They were assuming he would remain in custody there, but four months after his 2005 repatriation, Ajmi was released. In the months that followed, he began associating again with old Islamist friends, and in early 2008 Ajmi journeyed to Iraq on a suicide mission for al-Qaida in Iraq. In March, he drove a truck loaded with explosives onto an Iraqi army base and detonated it, killing as many as 13 Iraqi soldiers as well as himself.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
Margot Williams is a NPR News Investigations database correspondent. Along with her reporting, Williams works behind the scenes compiling, mining and analyzing data for investigative reports, ferreting for information, and connecting the dots.