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What To Do With the Guantanamo Detainees?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Associate Editor
Monday, February 23, 2009 11:00 AM

Last Easter, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Abdullah Saleh al-Ajmi drove a pickup truck into an Iraqi army base outside Mosul and detonated what the U.S. military would later estimate was somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of explosives. The blast -- the most violent act committed by a former Guantanamo detainee -- killed 13 Iraqi soldiers and wounded 42 others. As the Obama administration sets out to close the U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, the al-Ajmi case is reverberating through discussions of what to do with the 245 remaining detainees.

Washington Post Associate Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a former Baghdad bureau chief and author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, was online Monday, Feb. 23 to discuss his articles on the al-Ajmi case and the ongoing debate over Guantanamo Bay.

A transcript follows.

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Hello everyone. I'm looking forward to taking your questions. But first, a little backstory: Some people have asked me why I chose to focus on Abdallah Ajmi. My interest in his case was piqued after I read the first news accounts linking him to a suicide bombing in Iraq. (Those initial reports, relaying on information provided by the Defense Department, tied him to April attack that was conducted by his friend, Badr Harbi. Subsquent investigations revealed that he actually carried out the March attack that killed 13 Iraqi soldiers.) I spent months trying to track down people connected with his case -- lawyers, government officials and relatives. These stories are not intended to argue that Guantanamo is good or bad, that it should stay open or be closed, but rather to examine the potential impact incarcertation there had on one man, and to describe the challenges his case now poses for the Obama administration as it sets about to close the prison. Anyway, let's go to your questions....

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Hilton Head Island, South Carolina: How many of the detainees at GITMO actually have enough relevant and legitimate evidence in their files to be tried legally and face possible conviction? Isn't the first step in the legal process to determine IF the charges and accusations agains a person are legitimate and obtained without torture? These detainees are not guilty simply because an American says they are guilty. Also, what is the escape record in our US prisons? People act as if any of these detainees, if transferred to, and confined in, US prisons, will be able to escape immediately and wreck havoc on American communities. Some US prisoners are far more vile, brutal and threatening to US communities; even those prisoners serving life sentences do not escape frequently.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good question. The U.S. military has not stated exactly how many people it wanted to try before the military commissions that were set up to handle the cases of Guantanamo detainees. (18 detainees had been charged under the Bush administration.) Of course, the Obama administration is seeking to put a halt to the commission process. Although the new administration has not outlined its new policy for deciding the fate of Gitmo detainees, some legal experts believe the administration will decide to try some of the inmates in federal court in the United States with rules to handle classified evidence. The bigger challenge is what to do with many of the others for whom the United States doesn't have sufficient evidence to try them in a court. Some, like Ajmi, likely will be sent to their home countries (if those countries will accept them). But a big challenge remains in the cases of perhaps several dozen others whom U.S. intelligence agencies believe will engage in terrorist acts if they are released, but for whom there is not sufficient evidence to try them in a court.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Your article on Al-Ajmi was an absolute travesty. You parrot every last thing his lawyer had to say and leave the impression that there is no doubt it was Gitmo's "fault" for turning him into a suicide bomber. This is absolutely absurd and your obvious slant and tendentious reporting is not only obscenely irresponsible but is also likely to so pervert the policy discussion in this country that many people might end up getting killed. How do you reconcile your characterization of Al-Ajmi with this one provided several months ago by the WSJ? What an utter joke of an article. This guy was clearly a hardened terrorist LONG before he arrived at Guantanamo. But the author decides to parrot every last thing the nutso leftist whackjob attorney from Shearman and Sterling thinks and says about the guy to give the misimpression that it was GITMO'S fault that he drove a truck laden with 5,000 lbs of explosives into an Iraqi army barracks. When will you America-haters in the media get over your Bush delusion? Believe it or not, there's actually many very, very good reasons why Guantanamo was established and utilized, as the case of Al-Ajmi shows. If anybody wants to get a fuller picture of what a murderous creep this guy truly was, read the more even-handed and less one-sided piece about his worldview and attitude that was published in the WSJ a few months ago: From Gitmo to Miranda, With Love (Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2008)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks for citing the Debra Burlingame op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. She cites a poem Ajmi wrote titled "To My Captive Lawyer, Miranda" that was read aloud at a conference. Miranda is a pseudonym. He was writing the letter to someone else. (I know this from multiple sources and have even seen the original poem/letter.) The professor who read it sought to obscure the identity of the subject by substituting Miranda. Ajmi was not, as Burlingame suggests in her op-ed, thinking about his Miranda rights. I doubt he even knew what Miranda rights are. (The guy dropped out of school after the 8th grade.)

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washingtonpost.com: Former Guantanamo Detainee Returns to London (washingtonpost.com, Feb. 23)

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Here's a bit of breaking Gitmo news. The Obama adminstration has released its first detainee from the prison. From my colleague Kevin Sullivan in London:

LONDON, Feb. 23 -- A former British resident released after seven years in detention, more than four of them at the Guantanamo Bay military prison, arrived back in London Monday and issued a statement alleging that the United States government had subjected him to years of "medieval" torture.

"It is still difficult for me to believe that I was abducted, hauled from one country to the next, and tortured in medieval ways -- all orchestrated by the United States government," Binyam Mohammed, 30, said in the statement released by his lawyers at a London news conference.

Mohammed, 30, the first Guantanamo Bay detainee released during the Obama administration, has become a symbol of international anger at the anti-terrorism practices of the United States following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: This may be an oversimplication of an issue, yet I fear it may still apply. If you take a person who isn't a terrorist, tell him he's a terrorist, imprison him for being a terrorist, when you release him, should we not be surprised that he then thinks he is a terrorist?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Well, that's what Ajmi lawyer, Tom Wilner, argues. He contends that Ajmi was little more than a low-level Taliban fighter, if that -- that he was a lost, confused young man, not a terrorist mastermind or al-Qaeda operative. But, he says, locking Ajmi up at Gitmo for almost four years turned him into a hardened jihadist. Is that what happened? We'll never know for sure. There's is plenty of evidence to support that view. There's also evidence that shows that he was drawn to radical ideas when he was in Kuwait, before he ever went to Pakistan/Afghanistan. Would he have turned into a suicide bomber if he had not been caught in Pakistan and turned over to the Americans? Maybe. But he also may well have gone back home -- as many other Kuwaitis who fought in Afghanistan did -- and sought to resume something of a more normal life.

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Washington, D.C.: No question, just a comment: I thought this was an excellent article and I think it takes a hard look at the ramifications of closing Guantanamo. While I get the sense from your article that al-Ajmi's radicalism was not borne out of his time in Guantanamo, it certainly exacerbated the situation and quite possibly drove him back into the arms of the radicalism where he felt at home.

I personally think due process and the rule of law are the essence of what makes America a democratic society that has lasted for centuries. And Guantanamo, in my eyes, does nothing but stain this and may even drive people to do more harm. Once again, thank you for your insights.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thank you for your comment.

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Washington, D.C.: Couple questions:

First, wasn't this man a real exception, in reacting to Wilner so strongly, from most of the men still held in Guantanamo? So isn't his case a very poor basis for making predictions about what will happen if people not having these kinds of problems are released?

Second, is there any reason at all to think that if he was still held in the Guantanamo prison, the people who organized the bombing in Mosul wouldn't have found someone else to drive the truck bomb? A blind man can see that there is no shortage of angry and disturbed people in this world -- keeping one more in jail doesn't really make much if any of a material difference in anyone's security, does it?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: To your first question, I was not trying to suggest -- nor was Wilner -- that all Guantanamo detainees are like Ajmi. He was an exception. But he was a deadly exception. Of course, in any population of prisoners -- in Gitmo, in the DC jail, in any prison -- you'll have a certain percentage of recidivists. This was an effort to look at one of them, to try to understand what might have driven him to commit mass murder.

To the second question, yes, there is no shortage of angry, disturbed people out there, but I do not think there is an unlimited supply of aspiring suicide bombers. It may seem like there are in Iraq and Afghanistan these days, but intelligence officials I've talked to say that there are actually supply constraints on suicide bombers. Many in the world of "anti-coalition forces" -- homegrown insurgents, foreign fighters, al-Qaeda operatives -- don't want to kill themselves. And among those who do, it's not always easy to sneak into Iraq and link up with terrorists. Many aspiring bombers have wound up in jail. Now, if Ajmi didn't travel from Kuwait to Mosul, would someone else have driven that truck into the base? Perhaps. But perhaps it would have meant that some other attack never would have happened.

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Anonymous: Rajiv, I hope you won't take the vile letter from Ann Arbor personally. Some people's minds are so closed that they are entirely divorced from reality. Nothing you say, no facts you can point to, no logical arguments will ever penetrate into their hard shell pea brain.

Please keep up the good work.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: As you might expect, I've gotten a lot of email over the past two days from people who have read the stories. Some of it is thoughtful and others are downright nasty. (For a flavor of just how crass some people can be, look at the comments below the stories.) But the question from Ann Arbor also gave me a chance to correct the record on that poem Ajmi wrote.

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San Clemente: With hindsight it seems like the 700 or so detainees that have been kept at Gitmo were a pretty random bunch. I wonder how many of these "worst of the worst" were really as dangerous as say, the average "Son of Iraq" now on the U.S. military payroll?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: At some point, perhaps decades from now, as government documents from the post-9/11 period are declassified, historians will be able to better understand just what sort of evidence our government had to justify the detention of people at Guantanamo. Perhaps it will be extensive. Perhaps not.

What's interesting to ponder is what might have happened to Ajmi if he had been apprehended by U.S. forces in Afghanistan (as opposed to the Pakistani forces in Pakistan)? Would he have been sent to Gitmo? What if he was captured by the Northern Alliance or an anti-Taliban militia? Many Afghans who have been accused of far greater involvement with the Taliban have been released, and some even have been allowed to hold government positions in Afghanistan.

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Boston, Mass.: Hi,

It seems to me we grabbed up a mixed bag of people at Gitmo, but our method of just letting them suddenly go home seems rather absurd. All our prisons have some kind of pre-release program, why not one for these prisoners where we try to make them think we are a little more than just the guys who grabbed them up and tortured them for several years?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: That's a very good point. Saudi Arabia has a rehabilitation program that provide former jihadists with jobs, homes and funds to pay for marriage dowries. That effort has been praised by the U.S. government, which wants other nations to set up similar transition efforts. Some other countries do provide modest assistance to people released from Gitmo, but it still is the exception rather than the rule. But such programs are also not without failures: Saudi Arabia announced recently that nine graduates of its course, some of whom were Guantanamo detainees, have been arrested for rejoining terrorist groups.

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Lyme, Conn.: I should have thought that one of the advantages of releasing someone is that it would give our intelligence agencies someone to keep track of and to see who contacts the released person. Obviously, either we did not have the resources to track released detainees or we have an intelligence failure here. Do you have any idea on how we handle keeping tabs of released detainees?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Seems like a reasonable expectation. However, U.S. intelligence agencies lack the resources to track everyone who has been through the prison. Some are being monitored -- the government, of course, will not say who or how many. But the CIA and other agencies do not have the ability to monitor all of them. (There are more than 500 former Gitmo detainees out there.) In some cases, the U.S. government relies on foreign intelligence agencies to watch people. That's what was supposed to happen in Ajmi's case. But it appears the Kuwaitis didn't track him all that closely, it at all.

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Washington, D.C.: It wasn't clear from that article what the British government is doing with Binyam Mohamed. Was he released to private life? Is he still being held?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Not clear to me either. It seems like he's still in custody. If he's released, the Brits almost certainly will have a close watch on him. That persumably was a condition of his transfer.

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San Clemente: It seems that there is a lot of consensus now that the Uighurs were picked up and transported to Bagram and then Guantanamo in error. After seven years of detention, abuse, and torture while in American custody would it be safe to say that they might now be so embittered and radicalized that they would pose a grave threat if they were released into the U.S.?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I'm not sure it would be "safe to say" that, but that's certainly an argument that may be advanced by people who object to their transfer to the United States. (To recap: A federal judge in DC ruled that some of the Uighurs, who have been deemed "cleared for release" by the military, should be released to live with families in the Washington area, but the Court of Appeals in DC has blocked that move while it studies the case.) The Uighurs pose a real challenge: If the U.S. sends them back to China, there's a good chance they'll be tortured. No other country wants to take them. (Albania took a few Uighurs but it has said it doesn't want more.) So we effectively have a group of people without a home down there at Gitmo.

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Denver, Colo.: What responsibility (if any) should the U.S. have in accepting those that have been released from Guantanamo Bay?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Some people argue that the United States needs to make a good-faith effort to resettle some of the released detainees if it wants our allies to help take some of the prisoners. The Uighurs (see above) are top candidates for resettlement in the United States, and some legal experts believe that the Obama administration may eventually withdraw objections to the transfer, which were first filed by the Bush adminstration.

The bigger challenge is where to hold those who will not be cleared for release. If they are brought to the United States, there are only so many places that are secure enough to hold accused terrorists. Among them are the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo; the U.S. Naval brig in Charleston, S.C.; and Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas. But governors and members of Congress from all three states oppose the transfer of any Gitmo detainee into facilities in their states.

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Anonymous: Boston, Mass makes a good point. Under the heading of "lessons learned" it can be pointed out that the U.S. military in Iraq, where we have scooped up tens of thousands of detainees, has done just what he/she is suggesting.

The tough nut to crack at Gitmo is that by acknowledging any sort of wrongdoing on the part of the U.S. government we are opening a can of worms that could cause people who thought they were just being "Jack Bauer" patriots to wind up on a very expensive losing end of litigation or in jail.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: That's certainly a concern at the CIA and among certain quarters of the U.S. military that have been involved in detention operations. Thus far, however, the Obama administration has not indicated that it intends to pursue criminal charges against people involved in post-9/11 detentions. But that may not stop some members of Congress from calling hearings in the coming years to try to better understand what occurred at Gitmo and at the CIA "black site" prisons.

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Glen Burnie, Md.: In my view, the damage we did to our own reputation in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo is far worse than anything 200 individuals could do to our country. No matter what their intent or their training.

Thanks for a well-written and thought-provoking article.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Here's another comment.

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Manassas, Virginia: Article stated that the two-page summary outlining the principle allegations against Ajmi included "...that he went AWOL from the Kuwaiti military..." Was this verified? This is a pretty simple statement to determine if it was fact or fiction. If fiction, then the whole story about his capture, etc., could very well be fabricated. If it was true, then the scale tips to the story of Ajmi being a fighter for the Taliban.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: I'm not sure the U.S. military ever verified it, but there was nothing in his Kuwaiti court file to suggest it was made up, and his Kuwaiti lawyer does not dispute that he left the military to travel to Pakistan. Even some members of his family believe he went to Afghanistan. But the bigger question is what was he doing there? Was he just a low-level fighter? Or is there some secret evidence that shows he did something much worse? If that's the case, it never was shared with the Kuwaiti government when he was released.

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Washington, D.C.: One thing the White House could do is simply bring the detainees to the US, and continue to imprison those not already cleared (only about 75 uncleared detainees remain) under existing UCMJ and treaty provisions. It would be easy, as I briefed the White House prior to my retirement from active service, and no inherent executive rights would be waived. Now, of course, State, Defense, and DHS have caused the White House to already flop on the President's first major campaign promise. The Non-Culpable Determination detainees will all die down there at this point. This will enrage the Islamic world even further, leading to a gauarnteed 9/11 repeat.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Another comment.

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Ladson, S.C.: Why don't place GPS tracking devices in each of the devils, send them home and track their activities? Then we can home in on them if we need to take them out!!

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Interesting. I wonder if you can get ankle bracelets that work internationally.....

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D.C.: Build a new supermax prison in Napa Valley, so that Pelosi and Boxer can be personally involved in the entire process in their backyard.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Should we have them tend the vineyards too?

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Thanks for all of the excellent questions, and for taking the time to read two long stories. It was a pleasure to chat with all of you.

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