Several detainees released by the U.S. military from the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have rejoined their former comrades-in-arms and taken part in fresh attacks on American troops, according to Defense Department officials and a senior Republican lawmaker.
“We’ve already had instances where we know that people who have been released from our detention have gone back and have become combatants again,” said Rep. Porter J. Goss, Florida Republican, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“It’s the military Willie Horton,” he said, referring to the murderer who absconded on a furlough granted by then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1987. The freed Horton pistol-whipped a Maryland man and raped his fiancee, and the case became an issue when Mr. Dukakis, a Democrat, ran for president in 1988.
“I do in fact have specific cases,” Mr. Goss said in an interview. But when pressed for further details, he declined to say more.
A Defense official independently confirmed that several such cases had involved Afghans released from Guantanamo.
“At least five detainees released from Guantanamo have returned to the [Afghan] battlefield,” the defense official said on the condition of anonymity.
When asked how U.S. authorities could know, the official declined to comment.
“That gets into intel stuff. I can’t go there,” the official said.
The case of the released detainees threatens to become a political issue as Congress returns in the aftermath of June’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Guantanamo Bay detainees have a right to file writs of habeas corpus.
According to Mark Jacobson, a former senior official at the Pentagon who helped put together the handling practices for detainees at Guantanamo, every detainee is fingerprinted and photographed.
“We build up pretty extensive biometrics on these guys,” he said. “There are a lot of different ways we could know that someone we’d captured or killed had already been in our custody.”
The five known individuals represent just under 10 percent of the 57 Afghans released from Guantanamo, leaving open the possibility that more among the other 52 might also be fighting U.S.-led forces.
“I would hope our intel is good enough that we’d know if someone we’d released was back on the battlefield,” said Mr. Jacobson, now a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan.
At least one of the five men known to have rejoined the fight after being released appears to have been a Taliban field commander. Press reports from Afghanistan in April said that Mullah Shahzada, who was released from Guantanamo in spring last year, had been captured or killed.
Shahzada may have become active again almost immediately after his release.
In May 2003, the New York Times interviewed in Quetta, Pakistan, a “former fighter” who went by the name “Mullah Shahzada.” The report did not mention whether he had been detained in Guantanamo.
Mr. Jacobson said that person could be the same “Mullah Shahzada,” but cautioned about the common use of aliases among Taliban guerrillas.
Until recently, the U.S. military made decisions about who should be released from Guantanamo on a case-by-case basis that Mr. Jacobson described as “pretty meticulous.”
“Even if five got through,” he said, “that’s still an ‘A’ grade.”
The Defense official also defended the review process.
“It’s very thorough, but it’s not foolproof,” he said. “We err on the side of caution, but mistakes are going to be made.”
The defense official said that the process was complicated by Afghanistan’s lack of system of personal-identity cards or other definitive records.
“These people don’t have driver’s licenses,” he said. “They don’t even have birth certificates. Some of them are trained in deception and counter-interrogation techniques.
“One guy had 13 aliases.”
Earlier this year, facing a Supreme Court challenge to the legality of the Guantanamo detentions, the Pentagon began work on a more structured review process for detainees, under which an annual hearing would consider whether they still posed a threat.
The initial plans for the new system were unveiled June 23 by Navy Secretary Gordon England.
Mr. England declined to comment on whether detainees released under the old, case-by-case review system had taken up arms again, but said it was one pitfall the new process he was in charge of was designed to avoid.
“Obviously, we don’t want to release someone who’s going to come back and attack America or our allies,” he said in an interview.
But the Supreme Court ruling last week and the prospect that the Pentagon will now face an avalanche of litigation from the 500-plus detainees still held at Guantanamo have left plans for the new system in limbo.
Mr. England said the Pentagon “is still reviewing the [Supreme Court] decision.”
“We just don’t know what we’re going to do yet,” he said.
The defense official said that the Pentagon might use the new review process anyway for two reasons.
First, the military hopes it will reduce the number of detainees before the U.S. government begins the arduous process of preparing to defend against habeas corpus writs. And second, the Pentagon wants to show the courts that some due process is being granted at Guantanamo.
Mr. Jacobson said that it would have been wiser to treat the detainees captured in Afghanistan as prisoners of war “straight off the bat,” rather than leaving them in the legally murky situation of unlawful combatants.
“That way,” he pointed out, “the only question is ‘When is the conflict over?’ The courts don’t get involved.”
Mr. Goss said that he would hold intelligence committee hearings on detention issues later this month.