In the coming days, many will pore over the Guantánamo files released by Wikileaks to find startling revelations or to justify pre-existing positions. But before diving in, it may help to reflect on a few things that may not be explicit in the documents but are crucial to understanding their significance. These include:

1. “Threat assessment” is a game with no winners: If the initial document dump is any guide, most of what Wikileaks has obtained are “detainee assessments” that reveal more about the inner fantasy world of the US intelligence apparatus than who the detainees really are. The fantasy is not some elaborate conspiracy to fabricate stories from whole cloth; rather, it is the result of an intense desire for “useful” intelligence, coupled with an astounding lack of safeguards or quality control.

Journalists and bloggers are already hard at work cataloging the contradictions, omissions, and simple failures of logic in these files. Analyzing the Pentagon Papers decades ago, Hannah Arendt was struck by the bureaucratic self-deception and “defactualization” that thrive in environments of official secrecy, and the same rings true here: The Guantanamo jailers saw what they wanted to see – and found what pressures from above and their own cultural presuppositions pushed them to find. A recent Guardian headline captures this terrifying inertia: “Guantánamo piled lie upon lie through the momentum of its own existence.” Stephen Abraham, a former army intelligence officer once stationed at Guantánamo, described in detail the shoddiness of the dossiers, which were reviewed mainly for “format and grammar. The quality assurance review would not ordinarily check the accuracy of the information.”

Although these assessments would be considered “analytical” rather than “raw” intelligence, one can see very little analysis in them at all. They cite intelligence reports without any discernible attempt to assess their veracity. They read as if someone searched for the detainee’s name in a giant database and then simply pasted together all the passages they could find. For these reasons, one of the worst things one could do is use these files as a baseline for assessing the culpability or dangerousness of their subjects. The “detainee assessments” should not feed the stale, speculative, and fearmongering debate over Guantánamo “recidivism”; they should end it.

2. Torture. In the fantasy world of secret documents, the first inconvenient truths to disappear are the allegations of detainee torture and abuse. The “detainee assessments” do not discuss the interrogation tactics or conditions of detention to which prisoners were subjected. Revealingly, one of the few dossiers to mention allegations of torture refers only to “publicly released records” – any internal concerns about abuse, presumably, were discarded in the sausage-making process. And for detainees who spent time in foreign or secret CIA prisons before arriving in Cuba, such pre-Guantánamo sojourns are usually mentioned only in passing if at all. Dossiers of “high-value detainees” Abu Zubayda and ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri contain no hint of their repeated waterboarding and other abuses documented by, among others, the International Committee of the Red Cross. Mamdouh Habib’s assessment casually notes that “he spent six months with Egyptian interrogators before being transferred to U.S. custody.” Yet in those six months he says he was beaten and subject to electric shocks in interrogations personally overseen by Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, whom the later Obama administration later hoped to install as president.

Unfortunately, these assessments are blissfully walled off from abuse. Most useful information on torture at Guantánamo would likely have be in other databases housing detainee medical records or logs and video kept by guards and interrogators. Other documentation that would address torture directly was likely classified at a much higher level and/or destroyed (like the CIA video tapes of black site interrogations, an act for which the Obama administration has declined to file criminal charges).

3. The farce of prosecutions: Many have rightly condemned the “military commissions” established at Guantánamo as incompatible with basic standards of fairness. Yet for all but a few dozen detainees, the government does not have sufficient evidence to file charges even before its own kangaroo courts, let alone normal civilian tribunals.

The Washington Post recently reported the Obama administration was shocked to learn this, though it should not have been a surprise. The initial roundups were astoundingly haphazard, relying largely on payment of bounties for Arabs and other Muslim travelers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The jumbled mess of the Guantánamo files is a testament to this.

What is shocking is how some commentators point to the paucity of reliable evidence as vindication of their position to hold people indefinitely without trial. This heads-we-win-tails-you-lose attitude came out during the fretting over the near-acquittal (on all but one charge) of Ahmed Ghailani, the only Guantánamo prisoner to be tried in the U.S. For many in the U.S., the Ghailani verdict (which nevertheless yielded a life sentence) did not dispel fears of “terrorism”; it validated them and the idea that the rule of law is not to be trusted.

This embodies the deeper problem in the U.S. political debate over Guantánamo: near-total denial about the sheer incompetence of the world’s most expensive intelligence apparatus in the original detention decisions. Confronting this unfortunate fact is the only way to defuse the politics of hysteria that currently dominates debates over the fate of Guantánamo detainees.

4. The other prisons: As horrific as Guantánamo is, the incredible degree of scrutiny it has received also makes it probably the least terrifying part of the global network of extraterritorial prisons created by the US in the wake of 9/11. We still know next to nothing about detention facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as secret CIA prisons (allegedly now closed) that operated in those countries plus Poland, Romania, Thailand, and elsewhere. In the last decade, the US shuttled hundreds, possibly thousands, of prisoners around the world through a kind of sovereign underground of legal black holes, between military bases, CIA installations, and prisons of allied states.

As important as they are, the Guantánamo documents provide only a narrow view of one node in this complex network. Without any viable accountability mechanisms in the U.S. our main hope for learning more comes from investigations elsewhere, especially Britain, where a court recently ordered the Defence Ministry to release some details about detainees rendered from Iraq and Afghanistan.

5. The role of client states: The single most underappreciated fact about the “Global War on Terror” is the importance of repressive client states in doing most of the dirty work. Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco in particular have intelligence agencies experienced in dealing with militant “Islamists,” with even fewer concerns about legal oversight than their U.S. counterparts.

This collaboration is deep and longstanding. Since the Clinton years, the U.S. has orchestrated the abduction and forcible transfer of suspected “Islamists” to their homelands so they could be interrogated without apparent U.S. responsibility, a practice known as “extraordinary rendition.” We can infer that most Egyptian, Moroccan, and Jordanian captives were sent directly home, since very few of them ever arrived in Guantánamo. These intelligence agencies and many others even conducted interrogations at Guantánamo and are crucial for holding or monitoring detainees after repatriation.

In many ways, the most important files from the “Global War on Terror” are sitting in the secret police headquarters of U.S. proxy regimes in the Muslim world. Despite fears in Washington, it is too soon to tell how the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions will affect these relationships. The recent dissolution of the hated State Security (Amn al-Dawla) service in Egypt is a welcome step, but it seems to have handled the routine repression of the population, leaving the more sensitive CIA collaboration to the relatively unscathed General Intelligence Service (al-Mukhabarat al-‘Amma). In any event, these relationships remind us that the struggle over torture and detention in the “Global War on Terror” is not simply about the rule of law; it is also a story of the workings of global hegemony in the 21st century and how people seek to resist it.


How to cite this article:

Darryl Li "What the Guantánamo Leaks Won’t Reveal," Middle East Report Online, April 25, 2011.

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