US scrambles to contain fallout from 'damaging' Guantanamo leak

President again under pressure to make good on promise to close camp

The Obama administration was working furiously to prevent the reignition of international criticism and Arab fury over the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba where hundreds of terror suspects have been kept in extra-judicial limbo, after leaked documents revealed the flimsy intelligence on which many of the detentions have been based.

The US insisted that the documents, originally handed to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks and then obtained by the New York Times, painted an incomplete and outdated picture of life at the camp, which scarred President George Bush's relations with the rest of the world and which President Barack Obama has failed to close as he promised.

In a statement that completed the 180-degree turn in President Obama's approach to Guantanamo, the Pentagon yesterday weighed in to support President Bush's approach to dealing with the people picked up and brought to the camp on suspicion of being what he called "enemy combatants".

Condemning the leaks, it said: "Both the previous and the current administrations have made every effort to act with the utmost care and diligence in transferring detainees from Guantanamo. The previous administration transferred 537 detainees; to date, the current administration has transferred 67. Both administrations have made the protection of American citizens the top priority, and we are concerned that the disclosure of these documents could be damaging to those efforts."

President Obama signed an executive order for the closure of the camp by January 2010, but it remains open with 172 prisoners, out of 779 men who have been held there since it was established in 2002.

The leaked documents include files on more than 700 of the prisoners, many of which had been known only from a list of names until now. Many of the files include pictures and details of detainees' backgrounds, a trove of data that paints a picture of intelligence-gathering inside the camp and beyond and which provides ammunition for both sides in the bitter political battle over the camp.

The documents describe in stark terms the consequences for individuals of a process that lacked the protections for the innocent that would be common in the US criminal justice system. Elderly men suffering senile dementia and innocent farmers picked up near the site of roadside bombings were among people brought to Guantanamo on the flimsiest of evidence – sometimes even with no reason at all recorded in their files – with months or even years passing before their release.

Some of the individuals have been highlighted before by human rights campaigners, though the cache of documents provides new detail on their cases. An Al Jazeera cameraman was held for six years in part because authorities believed he would provide useful information about the TV channel's training programme and newsgathering operation.

The British resident Binyam Mohamed, released by the Obama administration after five years, had been implicated in a dirty bomb plot only on the basis of claims from a fellow prisoner who had been subjected to waterboarding by interrogators.

The files were also seized upon yesterday by supporters of the extra-judicial process for dealing with terrorist suspects, who pointed to cases of Guantanamo detainees that were freed and who subsequently turned or returned to violence.

Assessors at Guantanamo originally divided detainees into three categories, depending on their view of the risks their release would pose to US security, depending on what they believed to the suspects' links to al-Qa'ida, the Taliban or other extremist groups, and based on whether they had cooperated with authorities or expressed violent feelings towards the US.

The Pentagon yesterday pointed out that that system had been abandoned in favour of a more nuanced approach that is not shown in the leaked documents, which were written between 2002 and 2008.Last month, after a two-year freeze on military tribunals at Guantanamo, the administration said they would be restarted and laid down the rules for holding some of the detainees inside the camp indefinitely.

Among the other issues thrown up by the leak and threatening to cause difficulties for the Obama administration, the documents show that Pakistan's main intelligence agency, the ISI, was classified at Guantanamo as a terrorist organisation, like more than 60 militant networks, so that detainees linked to them might be considered to have "provided support to al-Qaida and the Taliban, or engaged in hostilities against U.S. and coalition forces".

What we've learnt from the Guantanamo files

Al-Qa'ida agent 'worked for MI6'

The British and Canadian secret services were victims of a double agent who, at the same time as working as an MI6 informant, was serving as a kidnapper and assassin for al-Qa'ida, according to the CIA. Adil Hadi al Jazairi Bin Hamlili, an Algerian who was detained in Pakistan in 2003 and sent to Guantanamo, apparently became an MI6 informant "because of his connections to members of various al-Qa'ida linked terrorist groups that operated in Afghanistan and Pakistan". However, US officials think he withheld information from his MI6 paymasters and received unverified intelligence reports linking him to a grenade attack on a church that killed a US diplomat and separate attacks on a hotel and another church.

The old were taken, too

Mohammed Sadiq, below, a frail Afghan man of 89 with senile dementia, was flown half-way around the world and detained for two months at Camp Delta – the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – before officials there decided he was neither a Taliban grandee nor a member of al-Qa'ida. Mr Sadiq had been arrested at his home after soldiers found a neighbour's satellite phone and a list of telephone numbers believed to be for Taliban fighters. Interrogators at Guantanamo decided the items were not Mr Sadiq's and that he did not know how to use the phone. He was not the only elderly Afghan taken to the camp. Haji Faiz Mohammed, 70, right, who also had senile dementia, was seized in a raid on a mosque. "There is no reason on the record" for his detention, his file says, but he was still held for nine months.

Some were freed to fight again

One of the men now training Libyan rebels in Benghazi is a former Libyan army tank driver who fought in Afghanistan and Sudan before spending four years at Guantanamo. The case of Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda bin Qumu, 51, was being pored over in the US yesterday – not just for what it says about the kinds of people detained at Guantanamo, but also for what it says about those involved in the Nato-backed resistance to the Gadaffi regime. Mr Qumu, who was diagnosed with a "non-specific personality disorder", escaped from a Libyan jail in 1993 and fought with groups linked to al-Qa'ida until he was captured in a tribal area of Pakistan after the US-led invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan. He was handed over to the Libyan government in 2007 and released from prison there the following year in an amnesty for militants.

There were cases of mistaken identity

Of all the miscarriages of justice revealed in the leaked documents, that of Mohammed Nasim, right, stands out. He spent two years at Guantanamo because he shared the name of a prominent Taliban leader. His file says: "The detainee was apprehended after a name similar to his was heard on a radio intercept thought to be originating from a group of individuals acting as sentries, reporting US troop movements to the Taliban. It is assessed that the detainee is a poor farmer and his arrest was due to mistaken identity." However, the failure of assessors at Guantanamo to verify their captives' real names can cut both ways. Said Mohammed Alam Shah, a 24-year-old Afghan with a prosthetic leg, was judged to have been working to flee the Taliban with his brother and was not a threat to the US. On returning to Afghanistan in 2004, he revealed himself to be Abdullah Mehsud, below right, a Pakistani militant leader who carried out bombings, kidnappings and finally detonated a suicide bomb to evade capture.

Spotting a terrorist is fraught with problems

One of the reasons innocent captives found it hard to persuade the US military that they were not affiliated to al-Qa'ida or the Taliban was because interrogators feared that real militants would be highly trained at deceiving them. Among the leaked papers is a 17-page manual on how to assess the risks posed by detainees. It lists such potential cover stories as being a "poor farmer", a "charity volunteer" or "on the hunt for a wife". Interrogators were also given al-Qa'ida training manuals that taught insurgents counter-interrogation techniques. The apparent co-operation of detainees might be a trick designed to "conceal other culprits and other information" but, on the other hand, "refusal to co-operate" was also an al-Qa'ida resistance technique, guards were told. The US manuals tell interrogators to search for smaller clues: a pocket calculator might be used to work out artillery ranges; the popular Casio F91W watch might have come from an al-Qa'ida bomb-making course.

Osama bin Laden's whereabouts are still a mystery

Evidence collected from detainees at Guantanamo helped to build up a picture of the movements of Osama bin Laden, below, after the US attacks of 11 September, 2001, although the intelligence dried up quickly and the al-Qa'ida leader remains at large. With many of the group's senior leaders among those kept at Camp Delta, leaked documents from their files can be used to track apparent al-Qa'ida activities before and after the World Trade Centre was destroyed. They reveal that many of the leaders were concentrated in Karachi, Pakistan, but travelled into Afghanistan within days of 9/11 in anticipation of a war with the US. They show that Osama bin Laden made public speeches in Kandahar province to rally support, telling Taliban fighters there "to defend Afghanistan against the infidel invaders" and to "fight in the name of Allah". He also travelled around the country to issue orders and meet supporters. In October, he discussed history and religion in Kabul with Yazid Zubair and Bashir Lap – two Malaysians now held at Guantanamo. Bin Laden is last recorded escaping from his hideout in the Tora Bora mountains with $7,000 borrowed from one of his security guards.

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