SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, AP -Named detainees: 186, citizens of two dozen countries including Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Accusations: Recruiting for the Taliban, helping Osama bin Laden escape U.S. troops, harboring gunmen who attacked American special forces.
These details, and many more, emerge from more than 5,000 pages of newly released transcripts of detainee hearings at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But as much as they reveal about the U.S. war against terrorism, much more remains unknown — the answers tantalizingly beyond reach.
Where, for example, is Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, who was captured in Pakistan three years ago by CIA officers and Pakistani authorities?
He may be among the more than 600 detainees who have been held at Guantanamo Bay whose names don’t appear in the transcripts, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The Associated Press. Or he might be at the U.S. military base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, or in one of the secret detention centers allegedly used by the CIA to interrogate al-Qaida suspects.
Where is Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, allegedly involved in al-Qaida’s 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania? He was captured after a gunbattle in Pakistan in July 2004 and handed over to the United States.
The transcripts, of hearings held to determine whether a detainee is an enemy combatant, don’t say.
None of the terrorist masterminds captured by America and its allies appear in the transcripts. It’s possible that high-value detainees with considerable evidence against them wouldn’t have tried to challenge their status as enemies of the United States.
The only exception is Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaida commander. A detainee mentioned to the tribunal that Zubaydah, who was wounded and captured in March 2002 in a gunbattle in Pakistan, was being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Many of those whose names do appear are accused of relatively minor or vague offenses, such as working as a driver or cook for the Taliban or receiving military training. Others were accused of fighting U.S. troops or coordinating ambushes. The detainees often denied the accusations, saying they were farmers, merchants or charity workers who in some cases were simply caught up in the Afghan war.
Nor do the transcripts fully illuminate the quality of evidence that has kept detainees behind bars at Guantanamo Bay, some for more than four years. The transcripts describe only unclassified evidence, much of it ambiguous. If a man owned a rifle, that’s considered evidence, even though many men in Afghanistan keep weapons for protection.
The transcripts mark the first time that large numbers of detainees have been officially identified, but the Pentagon hasn’t said whether these men are still in Guantanamo or were among the 267 prisoners released or transferred to date.
What is clear from the transcripts is the frustration of detainees trying to defend themselves against often hazy accusations.
Mohammed Sharif, an Afghan, was accused of guarding a Taliban camp. He denied it — and urged the military tribunal to produce the classified evidence against him. An unidentified tribunal member seemed as mystified as Sharif.
“Q: You mentioned that if we had facts or proof against you, you would understand why you were a prisoner, is that correct?
“Q: What could you have possibly done, that we might discover some of those facts?
“A: That’s my point. There are no facts … This is ridiculous. I know for a fact there is no proof.”
The lack of concrete evidence cited in the transcripts against detainees — many of whom were captured in Afghanistan in the months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — might create the impression they’re being held unjustly, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military policy think tank.
“I think it is going to strengthen the perception that we’ve rounded up a bunch of bystanders — that we just rounded up a bunch of Muslims to torment them,” Pike said. He pointed out that pursuing shadowy enemy combatants is completely different from nailing common criminals.
“The sort of evidence you’re going to be able to gather is not going to be courtroom quality evidence,” Pike in a telephone interview from Alexandria, Va.
But attorney Gaillard Hunt, who represents a Guantanamo Bay detainee, said he has seen heavily censored classified evidence against his client, and described it as thin.
“It was underwhelming,” Hunt said, adding that he is barred from discussing the evidence, even with his client, Pakistani millionaire Saifullah Paracha. Paracha is accused of laundering money for al-Qaida and plotting to smuggle explosives into the United States.
Bill Goodman, of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said the transcripts contain no hint of significant classified evidence.
“You would think that if they had something more substantial, that you would see shadows of it in the transcripts,” Goodman said. “But you don’t see it.”