Military officials at Guantanamo Bay aggressively defend the “tremendous” intelligence value of detainees held at the naval base despite a legal battle over the detainees’ rights and critics who say information from men imprisoned nearly three years is, at best, dated.
“Detainees under our charge right now have provided us tremendous insight and intelligence regarding how terrorist organizations recruit, fund, train and plan, and how they have the ability to compartmentalize information, operations and projects,” said Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, commander of the Guantanamo prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
Held at the prison are about 550 detainees, the vast majority captured in Afghanistan in the months after the September 11 attacks during the U.S.-led campaign to topple the al Qaeda-backing Taliban regime.
Gen. Hood, who spoke last week with reporters at Guantanamo, said intelligence gleaned during interrogation sessions “has been of extraordinary value to the United States as we take on terrorist organizations as enemies of our country.”
But some intelligence authorities question the motivation behind continuing to interrogate men imprisoned in near-solitary confinement for nearly three years.
“The longer you keep these people, the less valuable they become,” said Melvin A. Goodwin, a former CIA senior analyst. “They get socialized, they figure out what kind of answers interrogators want and they provide them.
“If you don’t get [good intelligence] in an initial go-round, chances are you’re never going to get it,” said Mr. Goodwin, who heads the National Security Program at the Center for International Policy, an advocacy group for international cooperation, demilitarization and human rights.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA official who was involved with interrogations in the Near East, said that “the thing to remember is that information is amazingly perishable.”
“When they are talking about holding people three years after the fact and still getting information from them, I just don’t believe that,” said Mr. Giraldi, who previously was an Army intelligence case officer. “The men at Gitmo probably know little or nothing about the current practices in al Qaeda.”
Gen. Hood acknowledged that intelligence pulled from detainees “is far more on the strategic side than the specific-action side,” meaning it cannot be used to guide immediate arrests or military action.
But he defended its relevance, suggesting that some nonmilitary agencies depend on it. Each week, he said, agencies from across the U.S. government send “hundreds of individual requests for information associated with the detainees under our control.”
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert L. Maginnis said it makes sense other agencies would be hungry for information drawn from such a religious, cultural, ethnic and historic reservoir.
“We really do not, even three years after 9/11, have a thorough understanding of some of the complexities of the enemy that’s out there, especially as they involve cultural, tribal, ethnic and religious issues,” Col. Maginnis said.
From a strategic standpoint, he said, the detainees could be valuable in piecing together information about the relationship between terrorist organizations and certain Middle East governments.
However, Mr. Giraldi dismissed the notion that such intelligence is coming from the detainees.
“Strategic intelligence is information that enables you to connect the dots in a broad-brush way,” he said. “The problem is that even strategic information becomes less and less useful with the passage of time.”
He added that a more realistic motivation behind continuing to interrogate detainees is their usefulness in “training and testing interrogators” on live subjects.
Mr. Goodwin agreed it is highly unlikely the detainees are providing “anything of strategic value.” Strategic intelligence, he said, would consist of “longer-term motivations of the organizations they come from, what is the agenda of these groups, what motivates them.”
He said men held at Guantanamo would not have such information about al Qaeda because they were captured as low-level foot soldiers during battle in Afghanistan.
“This was just a grab bag. They were just scooping people up off the battlefield,” he said, adding that truly valuable al Qaeda suspects such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — the mastermind of September 11 — are not held at Guantanamo. The government will not say where Mohammed is being interrogated.
Other top terrorists — such as Hambali, who headed the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah group in Asia and is believed responsible for the 2002 bombings that killed hundreds in a Bali nightclub in Indonesia — reportedly are held at the U.S. military base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.
Mr. Goodwin complained of the “borderline torture” of some Guantanamo detainees. The Pentagon has acknowledged some abuses, including an incident in which a female interrogator removed her uniform top, stripped down to her T-shirt and “ran her fingers through the detainee’s hair and sat on his lap.” In other cases, detainees were made to kneel for extended periods.
Human rights groups condemn such tactics. Compounding the situation is a legal battle over the rights of detainees to challenge their detention.
Calling the detainees “enemy combatants” undeserving of protection under the Geneva Conventions, the administration intends to try many in special war-crimes tribunals.
But that plan was dealt a blow Monday when a federal judge in the District ruled that President Bush overstepped his authority in classifying detainees eligible for the tribunals, intended to be the first of their kind since World War II.
The administration vowed to appeal.