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Guantanamo, Where “High Risk” Does Not Always Mean High Risk

Marcy and company have been working quite a bit on the Wikileaked Guantanamo docs, so I’m not going to step on toes there. I will just point out that the documents appear to be vast enough that any news outlet can spin virtually any narrative they want.

As Marcy notes here, the documents label prisoners by virtue of their risk to the United States. They should not necessarily be seen as reliable assessments, as you can see by the Abu Zubaydah documents. But merely the inclusion of this “high risk” assessment, and the subsequent release of some of the prisoners tagged with this assessment, allow lazy media outlets to spin a narrative about the US sending off prisoners to foreign lands that will come back and strike us. In fact, that was the main thrust of NPR’s report today.

Buried later in that story is the fact that the risk assessment was muddled, incomplete, and in some cases outright fallacious. The New York Times story points out that much of evidence was flawed, but they use the example of a detainee who lied to interrogators, was released, and returned to the front to fight with the Taliban. But there are plenty of examples that are virtually the opposite of that occurrence:

Here are some of the reasons we’ve held people at Guantánamo, according to files obtained by WikiLeaks and, then, by several news organizations: A sharecropper because he was familiar with mountain passes; an Afghan “because of his general knowledge of activities in the areas of Khost and Kabul based as a result of his frequent travels through the region as a taxi driver”; an Uzbek because he could talk about his country’s intelligence service, and a Bahraini about his country’s royal family (both of those nations are American allies); an eighty-nine year old man, who was suffering from dementia, to explain documents that he said were his son’s; an imam, to speculate on what worshippers at his mosque were up to; a cameraman for Al Jazeera, to detail its operations; a British man, who had been a captive of the Taliban, because “he was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics”; Taliban conscripts, so they could explain Taliban conscription techniques; a fourteen-year-old named Naqib Ullah, described in his file as a “kidnap victim,” who might know about the Taliban men who kidnapped him. (Ullah spent a year in the prison.) Our reasons, in short, do not always really involve a belief that a prisoner is dangerous to us or has committed some crime; sometimes (and this is more debased) we mostly think we might find him useful.

The Times article notes this – but they wait until far down the story to say “For every case of an Abdullah Mehsud — someone wrongly judged a minimal threat — there are several instances in which prisoners rated ‘high risk’ were released and have not engaged in wrongdoing.” They also show the weirdness of the threat assessments. Prisoners with Casio watches are seen as potential bomb-makers, because those watches were allegedly handed out by Al Qaeda.

The Guardian gets right to the point and states that “Innocent people interrogated for years on slimmest pretexts… children, elderly and mentally ill among those wrongfully held.” In the hands of Tom Lasseter and Carol Rosenberg, the files are seen as revealing a clumsy and confusing intelligence situation at Guantanamo, with the threat assessment criteria “made up as they went along.” But other outlets have focused on the release of “high risk” prisoners, without really assessing what “high risk” means in that context, or how it was derived.

The Wikileaks documents show Guantanamo to be a miserable failure. But it’s how that failure is spun that matters to make a credible analysis of the situation.

Best to see for yourself on this one rather than accepting the filter of the media organization who checked the documents.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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