Ten Years of Guantanamo: What Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld Knew


To mark the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay prison to house “war on terror” detainees captured after 9/11, Truthout will republish a handful of exclusive reports by Jason Leopold about the facility.

A version of this report was originally published on Truthout on April 8, 2010.

The Bush administration deceived the American people about the certain danger posed by Guantanamo Bay detainees – the “worst of the worst” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called them – when many were simply innocent bystanders, according to a former top State Department official.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, said President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld knew that many detainees had done nothing wrong but still kept them prisoner for political or PR reasons.

In a nine-page sworn declaration filed with a lawsuit by former Guantanamo detainee Adel Hassan Hamad, Wilkerson said Cheney, in particular, pursued a cynical strategy regarding the detainees in which “the ends justified the means” and assumed that “innocent people languishing in Guantanamo for years was justified by the broader war on terror.”

Wilkerson said he also learned during discussions with Powell that “President Bush was involved in all of the Guantanamo decision making” and that Cheney had mastered the art of manipulating his boss.

“My own view is that it was easy for Vice President Cheney to run circles around President Bush bureaucratically because Cheney had the network within the government to do so,” Wilkerson said. “Moreover, by exploiting what Secretary Powell called the President’s ‘cowboy instincts,’ Vice President Cheney could more often than not gain the President’s acquiescence.”

Wilkerson said Powell was drawn into the Guantanamo discussions because he was under pressure from foreign governments about their citizens who were believed to have been wrongfully detained.

During one meeting, Wilkerson said he learned that Pierre Prosper, US ambassador-at-large for war crimes and the point person on negotiating transfer of detainees to other countries, “would discuss the difficulty he encountered in dealing with the Department of Defense, and specifically Donald Rumsfeld, who just refused to let detainees go.”

Wilkerson came to conclude that “at least part of the problem was that it was politically impossible to release them [because] if they were released to another country, even an ally such as the United Kingdom, the leadership of the Defense Department would be left without any plausible explanation to the American people, whether the released detainee was subsequently found to be innocent by the receiving country, or whether the detainee was truly a terrorist and, upon release were it to then occur, would return to the war against the US.

“Another concern was that the detention efforts at Guantánamo would be revealed as the incredibly confused operation that they were. Such results were not acceptable to the Administration and would have been severely detrimental to the leadership at DOD.”

Left to Languish

So, Wilkerson said many of the original 742 detainees, who had been shipped to Guantanamo by late August 2002, were left to languish, though it was clear that many of them had been picked up in Afghanistan or another country with little due process and often because their local captors earned a $5,000-per-head bounty.

“The majority of them had never seen a US soldier in the process of their initial detention and their captivity had not been subjected to any meaningful review,” Wilkerson said. “A separate but related problem was that often absolutely no evidence relating to the detainee was turned over, so there was no real method of knowing why the prisoner had been detained in the first place. …

“It was clear to me that, as I learned about how the majority of the Guantánamo prisoners had been detained, the initial group of 742 detainees had not been detained under the processes I was used to as a military officer.

“It was also becoming more and more clear that many of the men were innocent, or at a minimum their guilt was impossible to determine let alone prove in any court of law, civilian or military. If there were any evidence, the chain protecting it had been completely ignored.”

Wilkerson blamed the “incompetent battlefield vetting” on the insufficient regular US Army troops sent to Afghanistan in the early days of the conflict. The Bush administration had decided to rely on a small number of US Special Operations Forces working with elements of the Afghan Northern Alliance.

The Special Forces didn’t have the manpower, the training nor the inclination to deal with the problem of assessing whether captives were enemy combatants or simply unlucky civilians who fell into the hands of local US allies, Wilkerson said, noting:

“We relied upon Afghans, such as General [Abdul Rashid] Dostum’s forces, and upon Pakistanis, to hand over prisoners whom they had apprehended, or who had been turned over to them for bounties, sometimes as much as $5,000 per head.

“Such practices meant that the likelihood was high that some of the Guantánamo detainees had been turned in to US forces in order to settle local scores, for tribal reasons, or just as a method of making money. I recall conversations with serving military officers at the time, who told me that many detainees were turned over for the wrong reasons, particularly for bounties and other incentives.”

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the captures, Wilkerson said the Bush administration viewed the detainees as not only potential sources of information about Al Qaeda but for evidence “on contacts between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and secret police forces in Iraq” that could help pave the way for the planned invasion in 2003.

The combination of the uncertainty about whether detainees actually knew anything and the harshness of their treatment set the stage for desperate captives to provide bad intelligence – saying whatever they thought their interrogators wanted to hear – which would then serve the Bush administration’s Iraq War aims.

That proved to be the case with alleged al-Qaeda captive, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who responded to threats of torture by claiming to know about an operational link between Hussein’s government and Al Qaeda. It was exactly the kind of information that the Bush administration had been seeking and was later cited to justify invading Iraq.

But it turned out to be wrong. In early 2004, al-Libi recanted his statements, claiming he had lied because of both actual and anticipated abuse, including threats that he would be sent to an intelligence service where he expected to be tortured.

Hyping the Danger

Senior Bush officials also exaggerated their certainty about the danger posed by Guantanamo detainees.

“If you think of the people down there, these are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield,” Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said in 2002, “they’re terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers…would-be suicide bombers.” He called them “the worst of the worst.”

Also in 2002, Vice President Cheney said Guantanamo prisoners “are the worst of a very bad lot” and “devoted to killing millions of Americans, innocent Americans, if they can, and they are perfectly prepared to die in the effort.”

Wilkerson filed his declaration in support of a lawsuit by Adel Hassan Hamad, a 52-year-old former Guantanamo detainee who has sued Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Joints Chief of Staff Richard Myers, and a slew of other Bush administration officials.

Hamad alleges that he was arrested in his apartment in Pakistan in July 2002, rendered to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan for five months, where he says he was tortured, and then transferred to Guantanamo where he allegedly endured more torture at the hands of US military personnel.

“Mr. Hamad was not given notice of the basis for his detention until more than two years after first being detained, when a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) was convened in November 2004,” according to the federal lawsuit filed in Seattle last week. “Not until March 2005, nearly three full years after initially being detained, was Mr. Hamad officially labeled an ‘enemy combatant’ by the flawed CSRT process.

“However, this determination drew a rare dissenting opinion that acknowledged his enemy combatant status determination was unwarranted and as such, would have ‘unconscionable results.’ The basis for Mr. Hamad’s enemy combatant determination was simply because of his association as an employee of two organizations for whom he had done humanitarian and charity work (one of which he had left years before), and nothing more.

“In fact, a second CSRT was ordered for Mr. Hamad in November of 2007, one month before he was ultimately released to the Sudan. This was unusual, and indicates that the government recognized that the initial CSRT determination of Mr. Hamad was not accurate.”

The lawsuit cites a redacted copy of Hamad’s clearance decision saying that the Pentagon had cleared him for release in November 2005, though he was not freed from Guantanamo until December 2007, more than two years later.

Wilkerson said he was not personally familiar with Hamad’s detention, but rather was addressing the broader detainee issues that the Bush administration faced after 9/11.

“With respect to the assertions by Mr. Hamad that he was wrongfully seized and detained, it became apparent to me as early as August 2002, and probably earlier to other State Department personnel who were focused on these issues, that many of the prisoners detained at Guantánamo had been taken into custody without regard to whether they were truly enemy combatants, or in fact whether many of them were enemies at all,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson said he “made a personal choice to come forward and discuss the abuses that occurred because knowledge that I served in an Administration that tortured and abused those it detained at the facilities at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere and indefinitely detained the innocent for political reasons has marked a low point in my professional career and I wish to make the record clear on what occurred.”

He added, “I am also extremely concerned that the Armed Forces of the United States, where I spent 31 years of my professional life, were deeply involved in these tragic mistakes. I am willing to testify in person regarding the content of this declaration, should that be necessary.”

This post was originally published by Truthout.


Related Stories:

Ten Years of Guantanamo: One of the Prison’s First Detainees Breaks His Silence

New Bill Allows Military to Detain You Indefinitely

Rumsfeld: Bin Laden Info from Gitmo NOT from ‘Harsh Treatment’ Or ‘Waterboarding’


Photo from Walt Jabsco via flickr

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Elizabeth Sowers
Liz Sowers2 years ago

On a different note, a DVD called "Sweet Misery" is about Donald Rumsfeld as CEO of the company that made aspartame and how he later pushed VERY strongly for it's approval although numerous scientists pleaded for it to not be released. Billions of money for a poison. Worth watching.

Joseph B.
Joseph B.2 years ago

Bush and Chaney are no longer in office- Obama and his cronies are and Gitmo is still open!
Obama is the culprit now- Bush and Chaney are long gone and now, Obama is responsible!
If it was so simple to close Gitmo and free all those "innocent prisoners" then why is the "chosen one" not done so?
He raked Bush over the coals for Gitmo and now look who continues on the tradition now?
The "Chosen one" ,the healer of mean partisan politics and the restorer of the nations tarnished image from that mean nasty old George Bush!
I submit Obama is no better! Not by a long shot- Will the left show as much hate and anger for Obama over this?
I think NOT!
Could it be that these innocent prisoners are not so innocent? Could it be that they could kill. you at the slightest whim or you are an American and deserve to die for it?
Of course, The angry left blames us and not these radical Islamists anyway so they to them these killers are innocent- It is we that are guilty of all manner of sin- They are blameless-
They have always hated their own country anyway and pull for America
's enemys since VietNam-
They just cant get over the hate they have for the country that they live in, George Bush, Chaney and Republicans not withstanding-
To these loyal Americans I say- You got the leader you wanted- Herr O bama- You got the "opology tour", Obamacare and the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell, tax increases, etc But the one thing you want perhaps more than closing Gitmo you can't hav

Robert O.
Robert O.2 years ago

Close it!

Michael C.
Michael C.3 years ago

I nearly forgot to mention, FREE BRADLEY MANNING and FREE TODAY.

This man is not a criminal...his is a true Patriot.

Michael C.
Michael C.3 years ago

Hey everyone, let us all welcome Mikey C, he has returned from China and his sweat labour shop in Nantoog. As usual Mikey, you are still full of yourself and that crap that you are always peddling.

I applaud the many thoughtful comments, I guess that is why I sent so many Stars to the true stars of Care2.

marc page
Marc P.3 years ago

Guantanamo Bay was nothing more than a test designed to determine the extremes the U.S. citizens would allow in letting the Government violate the Constitution and Civil and Human Rights. The test was a smashing success and the Government now is fully aware that as long as our country lives in fear there is no depth that we will disallow our government to sink to. We now allow our government to detain citizens without trial - In other countries - Facing torture - Indefinitely, and don't bat an eyelash. Everyone thinks this is fine because it won't happen to THEM. Meanwhile our police are gunning down innocent citizens, beating suspects, planting evidence, taking DNA samples of, and interrogating children without parental consent, all with impunity. meanwhile our Supreme Court rubber-stamps every violation and has turned its back on the citizens which it was designed to protect. While all of this continues we all sit at home watching our "Reality" shows and remain completely silent. What is bound to follow we richly deserve. The terrorists have won. We have willingly surrendered our freedom.

Jennifer Knight
Jennifer Knight3 years ago

Mike C - Care2 site is not Yahoo comments - if you make a mean-spirited comment like the one that "Obama should be his [Bush's] cellmate" could you at least explain why?

Bush and Cheney were the "master"minds behind the Guantanamo torture factory. They should stand accountable for their evil.

Michael MacDonald

@Mike C.
why for trying to shut Guantanamo down,
or ending the war in Iraq?

SeattleAnn S.
Ann S.3 years ago

What a courageous man of conscience Col. Lawrence Wilkerson is. I hope he has all successes and gains a lot of support for his great cause on the behalf of humanity. Cheney and Rumsfeld are the "worse of the worst" - they have some nerve calling anyone else that.

SeattleAnn S.
Ann S.3 years ago

It was an extremely dark 8 years under the Bush-Cheney dictatorship. The American people were kept in the dark and anyone who opposed the regime was prosecuted, persecuted and/or tortured. It is dubious that they were elected the first time because the voting ballot scandals, and they conveniently oversaw the first US terrorist attack which assisted them in spreading emotions of fear and retaliation enough to ensure another term and take our minds off their policies against the middle and lower class.