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.