The militants crept up behind Mohammed Akhtiar as he squatted at the spigot to wash his hands before evening prayers at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. They shouted “Allahu Akbar” – God is great – as one of them raised a metal mop squeezer and slammed it into Akhtiar's head, sending streams of blood running down his face.
Akhtiar was among the more than 770 terrorism suspects imprisoned at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after the Sept.11 attacks. They are the men the Bush administration described as “the worst of the worst.”
But Akhtiar was no terrorist. U.S. troops had dragged him out of his Afghanistan home in 2003 and held him in Guantanamo for three years in the belief that he was an insurgent involved in attacks on U.S. forces.
The Islamic radicals in Guantanamo's Camp Four who hissed “infidel” and spat at Akhtiar, however, knew something his captors didn't: The U.S. government had the wrong guy.
“He was not an enemy of the government; he was a friend of the government,” an Afghan intelligence officer told McClatchy. Akhtiar was imprisoned at Guantanamo on the basis of false information that local anti-government insurgents fed to U.S. troops, he said.
An eight-month McClatchy investigation in 11 countries has found that Akhtiar was one of dozens of men – and, according to several officials, perhaps hundreds – whom the U.S. has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments.
McClatchy interviewed 66 released detainees, more than a dozen local officials, primarily in Afghanistan, and U.S. officials with intimate knowledge of the detention program. The investigation also reviewed thousands of pages of U.S. military tribunal documents and other records.
This unprecedented compilation shows that most of the 66 were low-level Taliban grunts, innocent Afghan villagers or ordinary criminals. At least seven had been working for the U.S.-backed Afghan government and had no ties to militants, according to Afghan local officials. In effect, many of the detainees posed no danger to the U.S. or its allies.
The investigation also found that despite the uncertainty about whom they were holding, U.S. soldiers beat and abused many prisoners at Bagram and Kandahar air bases, the two main way stations in Afghanistan en route to Guantanamo.
U.S. built school for jihad
The McClatchy reporting documented how U.S. detention policies fueled support for extremist Islamist groups. For some detainees who went home far more militant than when they arrived, Guantanamo became a school for jihad, or Islamic holy war.
Of course, Guantanamo also houses Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, who along with four other high-profile detainees faces military commission charges. Cases also have been opened against 15 other detainees for assorted offenses, such as attending al-Qaida training camps.
But because the Bush administration set up Guantanamo under special rules that allowed indefinite detention without charges or federal court challenge, it's impossible to know how many of the men who've been held there were terrorists.
A series of White House directives placed “suspected enemy combatants” beyond the reach of U.S. law or the 1949 Geneva Conventions' protections for prisoners of war. President Bush and Congress then passed legislation that protected those detention rules.
However, the administration's attempts to keep the detainees beyond the law came crashing down last week.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that detainees have the right to contest their cases in federal courts, and that a 2006 act of Congress forbidding them from doing so was unconstitutional. “Some of these petitioners have been in custody for six years with no definitive judicial determination as to the legality of their detention,” the court said in its 5-4 decision, overturning Bush administration policy and two acts of Congress that codified it.
McClatchy's interviews are the most ever conducted with former Guantanamo detainees by a U.S. news organization. The issue of detainee backgrounds has previously been reported on by other media outlets, but not as comprehensively.
McClatchy also in many cases did more research than either the U.S. military at Guantanamo, which often relied on secondhand accounts, or the detainees' lawyers, who relied mainly on the detainees' accounts.
Acting on bad information
The McClatchy investigation found that top Bush administration officials knew within months of opening the Guantanamo detention center that many of the prisoners there weren't “the worst of the worst.” From the moment that Guantanamo opened in early 2002, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White said, it was obvious that at least a third of the population didn't belong there.
Of the 66 detainees whom McClatchy interviewed, the evidence indicates that 34 of them, about 52 percent, had connections with militant groups or activities. At least 23 of those 34, however, were Taliban foot soldiers, conscripts, low-level volunteers or adventure-seekers who knew nothing about global terrorism.
Only seven of the 66 were in positions to have had any ties to al-Qaida's leadership, and it isn't clear that any of them knew any terrorists of consequence.
If the former detainees whom McClatchy interviewed are any indication – and several former high-ranking U.S. administration and defense officials said in interviews that they are – most of the prisoners at Guantanamo weren't terrorist masterminds but men who were of no intelligence value in the war on terrorism.
Far from being an ally of the Taliban, Mohammed Akhtiar had fled to Pakistan shortly after the puritanical Islamist group took power in 1996, the senior Afghan intelligence officer told McClatchy. The Taliban burned down Akhtiar's house after he refused to ally his tribe with their government.
The Americans detained Akhtiar, the intelligence officer said, because they were given bad information by another Afghan who'd harbored a personal vendetta against Akhtiar going back to his time as a commander against the Soviet military during the 1980s.
“In some of these cases, tribal feuds and political feuds have played a big role” in people getting sent to Guantanamo, the intelligence officer said.
He didn't want his name used, partly because he didn't want to offend the Western officials he works with and partly because Afghan intelligence officers are assassinated regularly.
“There were Afghans being sent to Guantanamo because of bad intelligence,” said Helaluddin Helal, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister for security from 2002 to early 2004. “In the beginning, everyone was trying to give intelligence to the Americans … the Americans were taking action without checking this information.”
Ghalib Hassan was an Interior Ministry-appointed district commander in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, a man who'd risked his life to help the U.S.-backed government. Din Mohammed, the former governor of that province and now the governor of Kabul, said there was no question that local tribal leaders, offended by Hassan's brusque style, fed false information about him to local informants used by American troops.
The Pentagon declined requests to make top officials, including the secretary of defense, available to respond to McClatchy's findings. The defense official in charge of detainee affairs, Sandra Hodgkinson, refused to speak with McClatchy.
The Pentagon's only response to a series of written questions from McClatchy, and to a list of 63 of the 66 former detainees interviewed for this story, was a three-paragraph statement.
“These unlawful combatants have provided valuable information in the struggle to protect the U.S. public from an enemy bent on murder of innocent civilians,” Col. Gary Keck said in the statement. He provided no examples.
Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, until recently the commanding officer at Guantanamo, said that detainees had supplied crucial information about al-Qaida, the Taliban and other terrorist groups.
“Included with the folks that were brought here in 2002 were, by and large, the main leadership of al-Qaida and the Taliban,” he said in a phone interview.
Buzby agreed, however, that some detainees were from the bottom rung.
Former senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials, however, said McClatchy's conclusions squared with their own observations.
“As far as intelligence value from those in Gitmo, I got tired of telling the people writing reports based on their interrogations that their material was essentially worthless,” a U.S. intelligence officer said in an e-mail, using the military's slang for Guantanamo.
White House rewrites law
At a Pentagon briefing in the spring of 2002, a senior Army intelligence officer expressed doubt about the entire intelligence-gathering process.
“He said that we're not getting anything, and his thought was that we're not getting anything because there might not be anything to get,” said Donald Guter, a retired rear admiral who was the head of the Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps at the time.
Many detainees were “swept up in the pot” by large operations conducted by Afghan troops allied with the Americans, said former Army Secretary White, who's now a partner at an energy company in Houston.
One of the Afghan detainees at Guantanamo, White recalled, was more than 80 years old.
Army Spc. Eric Barclais, who was a military intelligence interrogator at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan from September 2002 through January 2003, told military investigators in sworn testimony that “We recommended lots of folks be released from (Bagram), but they were not. I believe some people ended up at (Guantanamo) that had no business being sent there.”
“You have to understand some folks were detained because they got turned in by neighbors or family members who were feuding with them,” Barclais said. “Yes, they had weapons. Everyone had weapons. Some were Soviet-era and could not even be fired.”
In 2002, a CIA analyst interviewed several dozen detainees at Guantanamo and reported to senior National Security Council officials that many of them didn't belong there, a former White House official said.
Despite the analyst's findings, the administration made no further review of the Guantanamo detainees. The White House had determined that all of them were enemy combatants, the former official said.
Rather than taking a closer look at whom they were holding, a group of five White House, Justice Department and Pentagon lawyers who called themselves the “War Council” devised a legal framework that enabled the administration to detain suspected “enemy combatants” indefinitely with few legal rights.
The threat of new terrorist attacks, the War Council argued, allowed President Bush to disregard or rewrite American law, international treaties and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to permit unlimited detentions and harsh interrogations.
The group further argued that detainees had no legal right to defend themselves, and that American soldiers – along with the War Council members, their bosses and Bush – should be shielded from prosecution for actions that many experts argue are war crimes.
With the support of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the group shunted aside the military justice system, and in February 2002, Bush suspended the legal protection for detainees spelled out in Common Article Three of the 1949 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, which outlaws degrading treatment and torture.
The Bush administration didn't launch a formal review of the detentions until a 2004 Supreme Court decision forced it to begin holding military tribunals at Guantanamo. The Supreme Court ruling last week said that the tribunals were deeply flawed, but it didn't close them down.
So far, the military commissions have publicly charged only six detainees – less than 1 percent of the more than 770 who've been at Guantanamo – with direct involvement in the 9-11 terrorist attacks; they dropped the charges in one case. Those few cases are now in question after the high court's ruling Thursday.
About 500 detainees – nearly two out of three – have been released.
During a military review board hearing at Guantanamo, Mohammed Akhtiar had some advice for the U.S. officers seated before him.
“I wish,” he said, “that the United States would realize who the bad guys are and who the good guys are.”