Guantánamo Detainees Deliver Intelligence Gains
New York Times 3-20-04 | NEIL A. LEWIS
GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba, March 19 — Military officials say prisoners at the detention center here have provided a stream of intelligence to interrogators during the past two years, including detailed information about Al Qaeda's recruitment of Muslim men in Europe.
Military and intelligence officials also said those detainees who were cooperative had provided information about Al Qaeda's chemical and biological weapons efforts, had spoken about the training of suicide bombers, and had described Al Qaeda's use of charities to raise money for its aims.
"We have been able as a result of information gained here to take operational actions, even military campaigns," said Steve Rodriguez, a veteran intelligence officer who oversees the interrogation teams. "There are instances of learning about active cells, and we have taken action to see that the cell was broken," he said, in one of a series of interviews given to a reporter on an arranged tour.
Another American official said analysts had been able to understand a kind of network in Europe that selected young Muslims, who were later drawn into Al Qaeda by imams and Islamic cultural centers and eventually sent to Afghanistan. He said this information has been sent on in recent months to European counterparts.
The sweeping assertions about the value of the detention center at Guantánamo respond to criticism of the operation, in the United States and abroad. Released detainees have also made allegations of mistreatment.
Apparently in an effort to counter the criticism, officials offered to talk in far greater detail than before about their interrogation techniques and what they say are important intelligence harvests from the detainees.
The officials denied the specific allegations of mistreatment made by prisoners recently returned to Britain whose accounts appeared in British newspapers and from Afghans who spoke to The New York Times in Kabul. Their accounts detail enforced privation, petty cruelty, beatings and planned humiliations.
There is no way so far to verify the situation of the detainees as described by the American officials, nor the charges of mistreatment.
The first military tribunals for some prisoners at Guantánamo may begin this summer, an event that is expected to draw new criticism. Many groups have challenged the legal basis the United States has cited to justify the detentions.
Speaking of the intelligence gleaned, Mr. Rodriguez contended that it was still useful, despite the fact that some of the detainees had been at Guantánamo for nearly two years. "I thought that when I first came here, there would be little to gain," he said. "But when they talk about what happens in certain operational theaters, the locations of certain pathways, that information doesn't perish."
He said a large number of the 610 detainees had not been cooperative with interrogators. At least 50, he said, were "ardent jihadists and have no qualms about telling you that if they got out, they would go and kill more Americans."
Mr. Rodriguez's emphasis on the dozens of the most hard-core detainees raises a significant question about Guantánamo: Does the prison camp also house many innocents who were swept up in the chaotic aftermath of the Afghanistan war?
Human rights groups and relatives of those detained have said the United States has committed a gross injustice by imprisoning many people who were in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons other than joining the Taliban or fighting for Al Qaeda. More than 100 prisoners from Guantánamo have been released so far.
Three former British prisoners who are friends from the city of Tipton said in interviews published last week in The Sunday Observer that they were arrested after they went to the region to arrange a marriage for one of the men. One of the others was to serve as best man. They spoke of beatings and abuse by American soldiers, charging that the Americans had stood on their kneeling legs and had held guns to their heads during questioning at Guantánamo.
Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the departing commander of the Joint Task Force, which runs the prison camp at Guantánamo, categorically denied the allegations.
He said he was confident that all the men there had been properly screened and fit the definition of an enemy combatant. "These people have a number of cover stories," he said. "I can say with certainty that the British detainees were here for an appropriate reason."
Mr. Rodriguez said, "If I were to believe the stories they tell me at first, then 90 percent of them are innocent rug merchants."
The released detainees said some prisoners had been treated brutally by soldiers from the Immediate Reaction Force, a group of seven members called to prison cells when an inmates refused to obey an order. One carries a plexiglass shield, and the rest have elbow and knee pads.
Such actions, officials said, occur three times a week on average and are always videotaped.
General Miller acknowledged a handful of occasions when the handling was judged to have been too rough, but said no one was left seriously injured. He said one military policeman had been court-martialed for overreacting when an inmate threw excrement on him. The soldier was acquitted.
The detention system at Guantánamo is intended to make the prisoners as compliant as possible. The detainees are schooled in a system of rewards and penalties calibrated to their behavior, including potential access to books and puzzles or being deprived of towels and a toothbrush.
For instance, most prisoners are not allowed to exercise in their 6-by-8-foot cells, but get twice-weekly 20-minute periods for exercising and showering. But if the camp authorities decide that detainees are becoming cooperative, they are given more time out of their cells.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, the only outside group that visits the detainees, has not publicly complained about physical mistreatment. But it has said the prolonged detention without any certainty for the inmates about their future is inhumane and psychologically debilitating.
The detainees may be summoned for questioning at any time of day or night for as many as two daily sessions of up to five hours.
One senior intelligence officer, a reservist who is a homicide detective in civilian life, described using hamburgers from the base's McDonald's and games of chess to gain intimacy with a detainee he said had been Al Qaeda's chief explosives instructor.