Secret Documents: Guantanamo Interrogators Worked Without Nuance

Apr 25, 2011
Originally published on April 25, 2011 5:58 pm

Among the trove of secret military documents that we reported on today are new details about the evidence that has been gathered on the men who have been detained at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

The documents, which included a two-page memo from 2008 entitled "The Threat Matrix," offer a glimpse of how interrogators worked to identify detainees and find any terrorism links. The job required a great deal of sleuthing and old fashioned guesswork. Part of the problem, the documents indicated, was that a great deal was left to an interrogator's interpretation and judgment.

Jim Clemente was in charge of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit down at Guantanamo and went to the base to try to teach young interrogators how to build a rapport with detainees to get information. He said there were lots of young interrogators there who didn't have a lot of experience with this sort of questioning and the matrix was supposed to speak to them. "You have to teach to the lowest common denominator," Clemente said. "And that Matrix is a very simplistic way of looking at things. The truth is, there are very nuanced ways that experts in the field use that goes above and beyond what's on that paper."

Without nuance, or even the language (many interrogators didn't speak Arabic and had to speak to detainees through interpreters), the quality of the information from detainees was often like a bad game of telephone, said Clemente. What the detainees said to start with was often different than what eventually made its way into an assessment file, he said.

The military assessments put in stark relief just how thin some of the evidence against the detainees may have been. For example, one common way officials determined someone was a member of al-Qaida was by having some other detainees simply identify him as a member of the group.

The assessments themselves read like a Who's Who of terrorism: one detainee would say another detainee met with Osama bin Laden or had dinner with his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri and they would often be rewarded for the information. (Happy Meals from the Guantanamo McDonald's was one of the favored prizes for detainees who were helpful during interrogations. Detainee names and their identification numbers are sprinkled throughout the documents in citations about intelligence. The Happy Meal prizes are not mentioned.)

The documents also indicate that some intelligence came from other detainees who had mental illnesses or those who had been tortured (like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused 911 mastermind).

There was Yemeni informant named Yasim Basardah whose statements appeared in the files of at least 30 other detainees.

The habeas process, in which federal judges would review the cases against detainees to determine whether there was a compelling reason to keep them behind bars, provided a check on the process.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday that the Obama administration condemns the release of classified information. He said NPR and the New York Times' decision to publish parts of the documents was "unfortunate." Carney said the White House has been aware of the detainee briefs, but he declined to talk about intelligence matters.

You can read more about the assessment process in our story today.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Dina, thanks for being with us.

DINA TEMPLE: You're welcome.

NORRIS: So what kinds of information are you finding in these documents?

TEMPLE: Well, what they are are classified assessments of more than 700 detainees who are down at Guantanamo. And these assessments were done between February of 2002 and January of 2009. And here's why they're interesting: because for the first time, these documents make it possible to connect a name with a face, with a history and its evidence.

NORRIS: So do these assessments explain why the detainees are linked to terrorism?

TEMPLE: Jim Clemente was in charge of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit down at Guantanamo, and he's seen the threat matrix. And he said there were a lot of young interrogators there who just didn't have a lot of experience with this sort of questioning.

JAMES CLEMENTE: You have to sort of teach to the lowest common denominator. And that is a very simplistic way of looking at things. There are very nuanced ways that actually experts in the field can use that could go way above and beyond what's on that paper.

TEMPLE: That lack of nuance is part of the reason why some of the information they were getting wasn't that great. A lot of the time, they were determining that someone was with al-Qaida by having some other detainee simply say he was.

NORRIS: So it appears that there are circumstances where the evidence appeared to be rather thin in these documents.

TEMPLE: Actually, that's what's really striking about what we read in this collection. You'd read an assessment of some detainee and you'd hear all these bad things that he supposedly did. And then you drill down a little bit, and it becomes really clear that the evidence is pretty sketchy. I mean, some of it was from other detainees who had mental illnesses or from detainees who were tortured.

NORRIS: So I want to ask you about this, the idea that one - that information from one detainee was used against another detainee, and then that becomes the basis for deciding whether or not these guys were risky or not.

TEMPLE: You know, I asked Karen Greenberg, who's the executive director of NYU's Law and Security center, about this very problem of evidence at Guantanamo.

KAREN GREENBERG: When federal judges get these cases and they look at them, they really see that, in essence, there's no there there. Actual evidence. Who did what when, where, why, how does not seem to be emerging.

NORRIS: And as you said, that was the executive director of NYU's Law and Security center. Dina, you said that these documents cover 2002 to 2009. How has the system changed in that period?

TEMPLE: But I think what we take away from all of this, after reading these documents for a couple of weeks, is that closing Guantanamo is going to be really difficult. And if you believe the documents and these threat assessments, there are some really dangerous people in there. And if you don't believe the documents, it raises real questions about evidence and whether any of these people could really be tried in a civilian or military court.

NORRIS: Dina, thank you very much.

TEMPLE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.