Detainee-Informer Presents Quandary for Government
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
An admitted Taliban fighter being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, fingered a fellow detainee for meeting regularly with Osama bin Laden. He identified another detainee for fighting at Tora Bora, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and a third for manning an antiaircraft weapon in Afghanistan. He claimed that a fellow Yemeni was one of bin Laden's bodyguards.
In dozens of interviews over several years at the U.S. military prison -- where he was rewarded with his own cell, McDonald's apple pies, chewing tobacco, a truck magazine and other "comfort items" -- Yasim Muhammed Basardah provided the evidence needed to continue detaining scores of alleged terrorists, military and FBI records show.
But as the Obama administration moves to close the detention center and tries to figure out what to do with the prisoners there, Basardah and the intelligence he offered have raised a pair of vexing problems for the government: Is the information he provided solid enough to bring his fellow prisoners to trial? And what do you do with Basardah and other informers, who are well known to the prisoners they ratted out?
Despite relying on Basardah's tips, military officials have expressed reservations about the credibility of their star witness since 2004. His trustworthiness was further thrown in doubt a little more than two weeks ago when a federal judge ordered a 21-year-old prisoner freed, saying he could not rely on Basardah's word to justify the man's confinement.
The government often relies on evidence other than informers' statements to justify detentions, but legal experts said how much credence the Obama administration gives the statements of Basardah and a handful of other informers will go a long way in determining which detainees are tried and which are released.
"The use of informants opens up a huge set of issues," said Robert Chesney, a law professor who focuses on national security issues at Wake Forest University. "Angels aren't present when the bad stuff is going down. The people present when bad things are happening, the ones you have to use as witnesses, are going to look bad."
Spokesmen for the Justice Department and the U.S. military declined to comment about Basardah, 33, or their use of informers. Basardah's civilian attorney, Steven Wax, a public defender in Oregon, also declined to comment.
Basardah, who is married and has a young son, was born in Yemen on New Year's Day 1976. He eventually moved to Saudi Arabia, where he became addicted to drugs and was an admitted drug dealer. He was arrested eight times on charges of stealing motorcycles and cars and illegally entering the country. He was exiled in 1995, U.S. military records show.
Back in Yemen, Basardah attended meetings sponsored by a Pakistan-based charity that recruits young men -- many poor and on drugs -- for holy war in Afghanistan, the military has alleged.
While others may have joined up because of their beliefs, Basardah told military officials his motive was cash. "I came in just for the money," he said at a 2005 military hearing.
By April 2001, he was being taught to use weapons at al-Qaeda's al-Farooq training facility in southern Afghanistan. By late 2001, he was hiding with bin Laden and others in the mountains of Tora Bora, where he acted as a cook and a fighter, he told military officials. He was arrested in Pakistan and turned over to U.S. authorities in 2002. He has been at Guantanamo since.
Much of the information contained in court filings from Basardah about his fellow prisoners is redacted or part of lengthy summary reports. But it is clear from military records and court documents that it didn't take long for Basardah to begin identifying others who trained at al-Farooq, stayed at Taliban or al-Qaeda guesthouses, protected bin Laden, or fought at Tora Bora.