The release of hundreds of once-secret intelligence assessments about Guantanamo Bay’s detainee population highlights how much conditions have changed at the controversial prison camp in recent years—and how the Obama administration, like the Bush White House, remains unsure of what to do with the hard-core militants who are still held there.
The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks provided news organizations like The Washington Post with access to unredacted case files on the 779 detainees who have been kept at Guantanamo Bay since the facility was opened in January 2002. The New York Times received the same files from a different source, leading to a spate of articles today about innocent young men who had been wrongly imprisoned at the military prison in Cuba for years before being freed; militants who successfully deceived their American interrogators into letting them go, only to take up arms again in places like Afghanistan and Yemen; and the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between prison authorities and the detainees who alternately threatened, begged, and cajoled them.
Taken together, the documents provided a series of snapshots of earlier incarnations of Guantanamo Bay, which is enjoying an unexpected second life under the Obama administration despite the White House’s earlier promises to shutter the facility. Earlier this year, the White House said it would resume the use of military commission trials at Guantanamo Bay for many of the suspected militants who remain held there. In an even starker reversal, the White House this month said it would put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 terror attacks, on trial at Guantanamo Bay, abandoning an earlier plan to try him at federal criminal court in New York City.
The Guantanamo Bay files date back to the earliest years of the camp’s existence, when military interrogators were under tremendous pressure to gather information that could prevent al-Qaida from following the 9/11 strikes with new attacks on the U.S. mainland. Detainees warned darkly of other, unrealized plots, including efforts to pump lethal cyanide into American office buildings and to destroy oil refineries and other key pieces of infrastructure. One detainee told his interrogators that al-Qaida had hidden a nuclear device in a major American city that would detonate if Osama bin Laden was killed or captured, though U.S. officials indicated that they didn’t believe the threat to be credible.
Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, Guantanamo Bay’s basic mission has changed from intelligence-gathering to warehousing potentially dangerous militants until policymakers can figure out what to do with them. Senior American military officials acknowledged in recent interviews that it was highly unlikely that any of the 172 detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay would still have useful information about future attacks, given how long the men have been there with little to no communication with the outside world.
Guantanamo Bay itself has changed markedly in the years since photographs of shackled detainees in black-out goggles and orange jumpsuits stunned many foreign leaders and prompted waves of calls to close the facility. The United States has spent nearly $2 billion since 2002 on physical improvements designed to make the camp safer and more comfortable for the detainees. Most detainees live in air-conditioned communal housing where they have access to PlayStation 3 video-game systems and Arabic translations of the Harry Potter books and Don Quixote. Prisoners eat their meals together and can watch large, flat-screen TVs with wireless headsets for the programs’ audio. The camp’s military physicians say that the most common injuries they see result from the detainees overeating or hurting themselves in spirited soccer matches.
The Obama administration has also entirely abandoned the Bush White House’s system for deciding which detainees to keep and which could be safely released, a three-part evaluation of whether each detainee still possesses valuable intelligence or poses low, medium, or high risks of carrying out new attacks if freed or causing trouble at the camp if kept incarcerated there. Instead, one of the first things the Obama team did after taking office was to conduct fresh reviews of each Guantanamo Bay detainee’s case file to see if they should be freed. The administration has since released 67 detainees, following on the 537 freed by the Bush White House. The New York Times noted that roughly 25 percent of the 598 detainees freed as of October 1, 2010, were “confirmed” or “suspected” of returning to militant activity—a recidivism rate that is, surprisingly, lower than those of most of former federal and state prisoners.
Still, the Obama administration—like its predecessors—continues to struggle with the basic question that has long hung over the prison: What should the United States do with detainees who are too dangerous to be freed but can’t be brought to trial because they were tortured while in U.S. custody or other legal complications? Roughly 47 detainees may fall into that category, including detainees like Omar Hamzayavich Abdulayev, a 32-year-old who has been imprisoned for more than nine years because U.S. officials worry about his supposed knowledge of how to weaponize poisons to use against civilian targets, and Saifullah Paracha, a Pakistani businessman who showed a willingness to launder money for al-Qaida and help the group ship explosives into the United States.
U.S. policymakers face an even trickier question when it comes to the large pool of Guantanamo Bay detainees which it wants to free, but can’t find a country willing or able to safely accept them. There are 90 Yemeni detainees who military authorities have determined pose no risk to American national security, but they are being kept at Guantanamo Bay because the administration believes it would be dangerous to send them back to Yemen given the country’s political unrest and growing al-Qaida-linked militancy. Eight Uighurs, ethnic Chinese Muslims, are similarly being held in a form of judicial limbo there because the White House can’t find a place for them to go (an earlier plan to resettle them in the United States was torpedoed by Congress).
The upshot is that Guantanamo Bay’s future ultimately comes down to a grim sort of numbers game. There are 98 detainees that the administration wants to free but can’t, and roughly 40 additional detainees who it hopes to eventually put on trial there, a process that could take years, if not decades, to complete. The remaining detainees are thought to be too dangerous to release and too complicated to bring to trial, which means they are likely to be held at Guantanamo Bay into the indefinite future. Guantanamo Bay, like many of the men it now holds, isn’t going anywhere.
Sara Sorcher contributed. contributed to this article.