Gitmo Detainee Paperwork “Scattered All Over Executive Branch”

I wish I could say that I am shocked by the news — reported by Karen DeYoung and Peter Finn in the Washington Post —  that the case records for Guantanamo detainees are an unholy mess, incomplete, missing or lost, with crucial paperwork piled on desks or shoved in desk drawers, sitting in boxes or stuffed into lockers all over the C.I.A., the Defense Department, and Guantanamo itself, but I’m not. I’m disgusted and outraged, but not shocked. Nor am I surprised that former Bush officials are minimizing the extent of the problem or denying there is one, while simultaneously accusing Obama’s people of making excuses because they don’t want to admit that it really is too “complex and dangerous” to close Gitmo.

Here is an extensive excerpt from the WaPo article (emphasis mine):

President Obama’s plans to expeditiously determine the fates of about 245 terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and quickly close the military prison there were set back last week when incoming legal and national security officials — barred until the inauguration from examining classified material on the detainees — discovered that there were no comprehensive case files on many of them.

Instead, they found that information on individual prisoners is “scattered throughout the executive branch,” a senior administration official said. The executive order Obama signed Thursday orders the prison closed within one year, and a Cabinet-level panel named to review each case separately will have to spend its initial weeks and perhaps months scouring the corners of the federal government in search of relevant material.

Several former Bush administration officials agreed that the files are incomplete and that no single government entity was charged with pulling together all the facts and the range of options for each prisoner. They said that the CIA and other intelligence agencies were reluctant to share information, and that the Bush administration’s focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority.

But other former officials took issue with the criticism and suggested that the new team has begun to appreciate the complexity and dangers of the issue and is looking for excuses.

After promising quick solutions, one former senior official said, the Obama administration is now “backpedaling and trying to buy time” by blaming its predecessor. Unless political appointees decide to overrule the recommendations of the career bureaucrats handling the issue under both administrations, he predicted, the new review will reach the same conclusion as the last: that most of the detainees can be neither released nor easily tried in this country.

All but about 60 who have been approved for release,” assuming countries can be found to accept them, “are either high-level al-Qaeda people responsible for 9/11 or bombings, or were high-level Taliban or al-Qaeda facilitators or money people,” said the former official who, like others, insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters about such matters. He acknowledged that he relied on Pentagon assurances that the files were comprehensive and in order rather than reading them himself.
Charles D. “Cully” Stimson, who served as deputy assistant defense secretary for detainee affairs in 2006-2007, said he had persistent problems in attempts to assemble all information on individual cases. Threats to recommend the release or transfer of a detainee were often required, he said, to persuade the CIA to “cough up a sentence or two.”

A second former Pentagon official said most individual files are heavily summarized dossiers that do not contain the kind of background and investigative work that would be put together by a federal prosecution team. He described “regular food fights” among different parts of the government over information-sharing on the detainees.

A CIA spokesman denied that the agency had not been “forthcoming” with detainee information, saying that such suggestions were “simply wrong” and that “we have worked very closely with other agencies to share what we know” about the prisoners. While denying there had been problems, one intelligence official said the Defense Department was far more likely to be responsible for any information lapses, since it had initially detained and interrogated most of the prisoners and had been in charge of them at the prison.
There have been indications from within and outside the government for some time … that evidence and other materials on the Guantanamo prisoners were in disarray, even though most of the detainees have been held for years.

Justice Department lawyers responding in federal courts to defense challenges over the past six months have said repeatedly that the government was overwhelmed by the sudden need to assemble material after Supreme Court rulings giving detainees habeas corpus and other rights.

In one federal filing, the Justice Department said that “the record . . . is not simply a collection of papers sitting in a box at the Defense Department. It is a massive undertaking just to produce the record in this one case.” In another filing, the department said that “defending these cases requires an intense, inter-agency coordination of efforts. None of the relevant agencies, however, was prepared to handle this volume of habeas cases on an expedited basis.”

Evidence gathered for military commission trials is in disarray, according to some former officials, who said military lawyers lacked the trial experience to prosecute complex international terrorism cases.

In a court filing this month, Darrel Vandeveld, a former military prosecutor at Guantanamo who asked to be relieved of his duties, said evidence was “strewn throughout the prosecution offices in desk drawers, bookcases packed with vaguely-labeled plastic containers, or even simply piled on the tops of desks.”

He said he once accidentally found “crucial physical evidence” that “had been tossed in a locker located at Guantanamo and promptly forgotten.”

Some thoughts and a question:

  • The rivalry and antagonism between the CIA and the FBI — which was mentioned in the 9/11 Commission report as part of why the government missed or failed to act on crucial information that could have stopped or prevented the 9/11 attacks — is obviously still a problem.
  • Guantanamo is a disaster because it was set up to be a disaster. Since the Bush administration never had any intention of observing any kind of legal due process at Gitmo, evidence-gathering, record-keeping, and trial preparation was simply never a priority. If detainees had been vetted as soon as they got to Gitmo or shortly thereafter to see if there was enough evidence to hold them, the vast majority of them could have been released within weeks or months. Instead, even many detainees who were eventually released languished at Gitmo for years — some as long as six years — while the former administration fought tooth and nail through the court system trying to prevent habeus corpus challenges to hundreds of cases in which they had no evidence to charge or continue to hold anyone. Instead of using that time to build cases with real evidence, and release those individuals for whom there was no evidence or not enough, the Bush administration wasted over six years obstructing justice. And now that a new administration is in Washington, committed to upholding the rule of law rather than destroying it, that new administration is being told it’s “too complicated” to release the remaining detainees and close Gitmo.
  • How the hell does that “former senior official” know with such certainty that “all but 60” prisoners still at Gitmo “are either high-level al-Qaeda people responsible for 9/11 or bombings, or were high-level Taliban or al-Qaeda facilitators or money people,” if, by his own admission, he has not seen or read the files and is relying on Pentagon assurances that said files are comprehensive and in order?

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