Most Guantanamo detainees low-level fighters, task force report says

By Peter Finn
Saturday, May 29, 2010; A03

About 10 percent of the 240 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when President Obama took office were "leaders, operatives and facilitators involved in plots against the United States," but the majority were low-level fighters, according to a previously undisclosed government report. About 5 percent of the detainees could not be categorized at all.

The final report by the Guantanamo Review Task Force recommends that 126 of the detainees be transferred either to their homes or to a third country; that 36 be prosecuted in either federal court or a military commission; and that 48 be held indefinitely under the laws of war. A group of 30 Yemenis was approved for release if security conditions in their home country improve.

The report was completed in January but sent to select committees on Capitol Hill just this week. The administration sat on the report in the wake of the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day because there was little public or congressional appetite for further discussion of its plan to close the military detention center.

The figures are in line with previous estimates, but the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, could have important political implications. There is deepening bipartisan congressional opposition to the closure of Guantanamo, and the administration is attempting to show that it has conducted a rigorous review process and been attentive to security risks.

It remains unclear whether the administration can gain enough support on Capitol Hill to move forward with its plan to buy a state prison in Illinois to replace Guantanamo, where 181 detainees remain. Key House and Senate committees introduced language this month into defense bills that would bar funding for any such facility in the United States.

According to the task force report, more than 60 career professionals -- including intelligence analysts, law enforcement agents and prosecutors -- compiled files on each detainee. The files included capture information, interview reports, record searches by the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency, and Guantanamo Bay files on behavior, disciplinary infractions and mental health.

Before the review, there was no single repository of information for each detainee. The task force determined that there "were more than a thousand pieces of potentially relevant physical evidence (including electronic media) seized during raids in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks that had not yet been systematically catalogued."

Apart from the 10 percent implicated in plots against the United States, a group of about 20 percent of detainees had significant roles with al-Qaeda or associated groups. Fewer than 10 percent were Taliban leaders or members of groups opposed to the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

The task force's recommendations were reviewed and largely approved by senior officials from six agencies, including the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. If there was disagreement among senior officials, cases went to agency heads.

"These weren't all easy calls," said a government official involved in the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But in the end, these were unanimous decisions among all six agencies."

The decision to hold 48 detainees without trial remains the most controversial part of the review process for key parts of Obama's constituency, including human rights activists. The task force said prosecution was not feasible for some detainees because the focus at the time of their capture was the "gathering of intelligence," not evidence. But these detainees still posed "a high level of threat."

The report says that obstacles to prosecution "typically did not stem from concerns over protecting sensitive sources or methods from disclosure, or concerns that evidence against the detainee was tainted."

The report says those recommended for indefinite detention had significant roles in al-Qaeda or the Taliban and advanced training or expertise. It notes that "some detainees designated for detention have, while at Guantanamo, expressly stated or otherwise exhibited an intent to reengage in extremist activity upon release."

For a handful of detainees cleared for transfer, there was scant evidence of any involvement with terrorist groups, the report says. Most were low-level fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda or other groups in Afghanistan.

"It is important to emphasize that a decision to approve a detainee for transfer does not reflect a decision that a detainee poses no threat or no risk of recidivism," the report says. "The review participants nonetheless considered those detainees appropriate candidates for transfer from a threat perspective, in light of their limited skills, minor organizational roles, or other factors."

Of the of 779 detainees held at Guantanamo since it opened in January 2002, about 70 percent, or 530, were released by the Bush administration. It had cleared 59 more for release by the time Obama took office.

Since January 2009, the Obama administration has resettled 33 detainees in third countries, repatriated 24 and sent two to Italy for prosecution. Of the remaining detainees cleared for release, 28 are Yemeni, 17 are candidates for repatriation and 22, including five Uighurs from China, have been approved for resettlement in third countries.

In a letter this month, seven Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee asked James L. Jones, the president's national security adviser, to recommend to Obama "an immediate prohibition on the transfer of any detainee out of Guantanamo Bay, and a halt to any action related to the closure of the facility."

Jones replied to the letter this week, saying that "Guantanamo has compromised our standing in the world, undermined our core values, and diminished our moral authority." He said that the Pentagon spends $150 million a year for detention operations at Guantanamo and that costs at a possible facility in Thomson, Ill., would be $70 million to $80 million.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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