No Comment — April 28, 2011, 10:16 am

The Mosaic Philosophy at Gitmo

On March 17, 2009, Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who served as Colin Powell’s right-hand at the State Department, penned a short piece for the Washington Note. “There are several dimensions to the debate over the U.S. prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that the media have largely missed and, thus, of which the American people are almost completely unaware,” Wilkerson wrote. He noted that prisoners had been seized and shuffled quickly off to Guantánamo without the process of vetting and review that had characterized earlier military operations, adding:

Several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.

But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers. They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantanamo Bay. Better to claim that everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released. I am very sorry to say that I believe there were uniformed military who aided and abetted these falsehoods, even at the highest levels of our armed forces.

Wilkerson’s accusations have now been validated by the batch of classified U.S. government documents released this past Sunday by WikiLeaks. The documents show that government analysts fully acknowledged that 150 of the 779 prisoners at Guantanamo were civilians uninvolved in any hostile activities who were picked up by mistake, but who wound up being held for years for vague or improper reasons. Among the revelations:

  • One young Afghan was seized by security forces in 2003 after a bomb detonated by the side of the road, simply because he was nearby. He insisted that he was a shepherd, and the intelligence analysts at the CIA believed him, confirming that he lacked even rudimentary knowledge of military and political concepts. He was nevertheless classified as an “enemy combatant” and held until 2006.

  • Another man was dragged off to Guantánamo because he was a mullah in Kandahar, a fact that placed him in a “position to have special knowledge about the Taliban,” as the file observes.

  • The youngest prisoner, a fourteen-year-old Afghan boy, was seized because he might have “possible knowledge about local Taliban leaders,” according to his file.

  • A reporter for Al Jazeera was held in captivity for six years so that interrogators could gather information about the internal workings of the Al Jazeera network, including information on how it had secured an interview with Osama bin Laden—information Al Jazeera had freely and immediately shared with the U.S. government before the interview was ever aired.

A few prisoners were apparently shipped to Gitmo on the suspicion that they might provide information on esoteric subjects like Uzbekistan’s intelligence service and the Bahrani court. Government analysts had only vague hunches linking many other prisoners to terrorist groups; only a handful of the inmates appear to have genuinely been leadership figures. The documents show analysts struggling to justify these detentions, and seeking to classify the prisoners as threats.

In most cases, analysts inferred the hostility of the prisoner from the fact that he was apprehended somewhere close to a battle line, espoused a fundamentalist view of Islam, showed political hostility to America, voiced resentment of his incarceration, or, in some cases, had been denounced by another prisoner (usually under an incentive program that rewarded prisoners who denounced a fellow inmate). These criteria could, of course, be used to classify a large part of the adult male population of Afghanistan and the Pakistani borderlands as “enemy combatants.”

In his 2009 remarks, Wilkerson explained that this approach resulted from an unorthodox new intelligence approach called the “mosaic philosophy”:

This philosophy held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance (this general philosophy, in an even cruder form, prevailed in Iraq as well, helping to produce the nightmare at Abu Ghraib). All that was necessary was to extract everything possible from him and others like him, assemble it all in a computer program, and then look for cross-connections and serendipitous incidentals–in short, to have sufficient information about a village, a region, or a group of individuals, that dots could be connected and terrorists or their plots could be identified.

Thus, as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees’ innocence was inconsequential. After all, they were ignorant peasants for the most part and mostly Muslim to boot.

In the November 2009 issue of Harper’s, Petra Bartosiewicz provides a comprehensive introduction to the mosaic philosophy and how it failed the U.S. intelligence community.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
New Television·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Season 5 of Louie (FX), Louie is a new kind of superhero. Like Wonder Woman, the canonical superhero he most resembles, Louie’s distinctive superpower is love.”
Illustration by Demetrios Psillos
Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.

In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today