Twelve years ago, U.S. troops shuffled 20 men in chains and orange jumpsuits off a cargo plane at Guantánamo — dubbed “the worst of the worst” of America’s captives in the nascent war on terror — to launch an experiment in interrogation and detention unbounded by geography or the U.S. courts.
No one knew what would become of them. Not the U.S. military. Not President George W. Bush. Not them.
Nine of them are gone now. The rest include three men who are cleared to go, committed hunger strikers, three Taliban and a war criminal serving a life sentence on a questionable conspiracy conviction for peddling al-Qaida propaganda.
And with the wisdom of hindsight and a dozen years, one thing is clear: Not only were those men photographed kneeling in a cage not fanatical terrorists, “the worst of the worst” were yet to come.
“Some of these people that were in there shouldn’t have been sent to Guantánamo,” said retired Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who as a young brigadier opened the prison camps on Jan. 11, 2002 and ran the operation for the next three months. “Others were just in the wrong place in the wrong time or had been caught lying about something else and they figured they were lying about a great deal more.
“Some of them were fighters, probably on a low level,” said Lehnert, now 62. “Some of them were never fighters at all. They were the flotsam and jetsam of the war.”
Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld chose Guantánamo as “the least worst place” to house America’s war-on-terror prisoners just months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that stunned the nation. The United States was hunting for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida sleeper cells, and U.S. allies in Afghanistan were scooping up suspected foreign fighters, overwhelming the U.S. military and its intelligence capacity in the theater of warfare.
Leaked detainee documents make clear that some of the men put on that plane had been interrogated at sea, some were profiled as suspected bin Laden bodyguards, seen as would-be terrorists who might help troops find the al-Qaida leader. Out of reach of the courts, and seen by the White House as unworthy of “quaint” Geneva Conventions protections, U.S. intelligence saw the isolated U.S. Navy base at the southeast end of Cuba as an ideal place to interrogate them.
But as the years passed, suspicions seemed to wane. One by one, many of the suspected bodyguards that were brought to Guantánamo in the earliest days were let go — the latest just last month ago when the United States returned Ibrahim Idris, 52, to Sudan as too ill to present a danger to the United States.
And Thursday, an intelligence-review panel by consensus cleared for transfer another suspected bodyguard, Mahmud Mujahid, 34. Once the White House is satisfied with security measures, Mujahid is approved to return to his native Yemen along with one of Guantánamo’s best known hunger strikers, Samir Moqbel.
Moqbel, 36, was one of four men from that first flight who would be force-fed as the hunger strike was spreading in the prison last year. His April 14 op-ed column in The New York Times — based on a telephone call to his lawyer from inside the prison — spoke of painful forced feedings and noted that in all his time in U.S. custody he had never been charged with a crime.
Last week, his attorney, Cori Crider, at the London legal defense firm Reprieve, who facilitated that column, called Moqbel “a low-level or no-level person” undeserving of the label “worst of the worst.”
Moreover, Crider said, Moqbel has not seen or spoken with his lawyers in months because of a new prison practice of routinely searching captives’ genitals as the men come and go from phone calls and legal meetings. “He’s one of my more pious and shy clients,” she said, “and since the new search policy, he just hasn’t come out.”
The others who were force-fed last year included Yemenis Abdul Malik al Wahab, 34, and Muhammed Abu Ghanem, 38, and a Saudi named Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 40, whom commanders sometimes like to mention, anonymously, to visiting journalists as proof that being nasogastrically fed — through a tube inserted via the nose — can’t be all that bad. Another suspected bin Laden bodyguard, he has been largely tube fed since 2005.
To be sure, not all from the first flight can be called no-level or low-level.
Of the nine who have so far been released, one of those infamous first 20 has returned to the fight, according to a 2012 report by a congressional committee.
The Bush administration repatriated Abdullah Zakir, 40, known at Guantánamo as Abdullah Gulam Rasoul, to a short stint in a U.S.-supervised Afghan lockup at Poli-Charki in December 2007. Soon after his release, he “began to play a critical role in the Afghan insurgency,” according to the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee report that featured him as a top Taliban military commander in Helmand Province.
“It’s unfortunate that they went back to the fight,” said Lehnert, who has been recently outspoken about the need to close the prison by putting some captives on trial, moving them to the States and letting some go.
Recidivism, he says, is “going to happen. Is that reason enough for us to turn our backs on the Constitution and the rule of law? What better street cred is there than being locked up in Guantánamo for eight years? I don’t know what came first: the chicken or the egg.”
Three other Taliban leaders arrived on that first flight — Abdul Haq Wasiq, 42, Mullah Norullah Noori, 46, and Mullah Mohammed Fazl, 47. All three are fixtures on the list of forever prisoners, the indefinite detainees that the Obama administration deemed too dangerous to release, even though prosecutors decided there was no viable evidence with which to try them.
Possible prisoner swap
With the U.S. winding down military operations in Afghanistan, some in the Obama administration have wondered about the legitimacy of holding them once the U.S. declares that portion of the war over. Reports from Afghanistan have suggested they could somehow be used in a trade for the release of Army Sgt. Bowie Bergdahl, a 27-year-old believed to be held captive since 2009 by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network.
Of the 779 men who have been held at the prison camps in southeast Cuba, just seven have been convicted of war crimes — and two of them came off that first flight.
Australian David Hicks, 42, a self-styled soldier of fortune scooped up in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terror attack, pleaded guilty to being a foot-soldier for the Taliban in 2007 in exchange for return to his homeland. He has written a book, married, works as an auto-body repairman and is appealing his conviction as illegal and involuntary.
The other convict is Yemeni Ali Hamza al Bahlul, 44, serving life — alone — in the corridor of Guantánamo’s Camp 5 where the war criminals are confined.
He offered no defense — and no remorse — at his 2008 military commission, which convicted him of conspiring to commit terror by making al-Qaida recruiting videos.
Pentagon-paid attorneys are challenging that conviction as contrary to international law. Last January, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., agreed, and threw out Bahlul's conviction. The Department of Justice is appealing that ruling in a challenge that leaves open the question of the legitimacy of calling conspiracy a war crime at Guantánamo’s military commissions. The full court is likely to rule later this year.
Hundreds more prisoners would follow the first 20 into Camp X-Ray, the crude open-air lock-up whose iconic photos would symbolize the military experiment in offshore detention: Camp Echo for the military commission candidates, now-closed communal prisoner-of-war-style barracks and two stark prison buildings called Camp 5 and 6, where the last 11 are now confined.
Real ‘worst of the worst’
Meantime, men more deserving of the title “worst of the worst” — the alleged Sept. 11 conspirators who spent years not at Guantánamo but in the CIA’s clandestine prison network — arrived in 2006 and were immediately segregated in a secret prison.
Six of the men who came almost five years after that first flight are awaiting death-penalty proceedings.
Those who remained among the first 20 would eventually get lawyers. But few ever got their day in court. Several of them fired or shunned their volunteer defense counsel.
Hunger striker Abu Ghanim wrote off the U.S. courts years ago, according to Santa Monica, Calif., attorney Michael Rapkin. Over the years, federal judges had granted some Guantánamo captives court release orders, only to see both the Bush- and Obama-era Justice Department systematically challenge those rulings and, in the process, expand the definition of the White House authority to detain.
“When I last spoke to him he gave up hope in the American system,” said Rapkin. “It didn’t matter if he won his habeas case, as he saw it he was never going to go home.”
In other words, even if he won his case, he’d lose.
General: First prisoners ‘losers’
In a different sense, Lenhert said the same thing about many of those first captives in Camp X-Ray. Especially after the U.S. let International Red Cross delegates into the camps, he said, he came to conclude that the captives scooped up in those early days were, in a word, “losers.”
“They were people who failed in life in other things. I talked to many of them. Failed marriages, failed businesses, failed relationships with their families, and they tended to blame it on America, Israel, Jews,” he said.
“These were people who were in there because they had not done particularly well at home. They were losers. Apart from those who were probably higher in the hierarchy, many were individuals searching for themselves.”
It should come as no surprise that most of those first men who remain are Yemeni. During the Bush years, the Pentagon repatriated almost all of the captives from allied nations, notably more than 100 to Saudi Arabia and almost 200 to Afghanistan. But the Obama administration was reluctant to return men profiled as jihadists to Yemen, the nation today with one of al-Qaida’s most potent franchises.
Thousands of guards
Twelve commanders have succeeded Lehnert, and thousands of troops have done deployments of a year or so at the temporary war-on-terror prison that in his first year in office President Barack Obama ordered closed by Jan. 22, 2010.
Lehnert, who joined the Marines as a combat engineer, retired after 37 years and has been an outspoken advocate of closure. That would require Congress lifting its ban on bringing Guantánamo captives to the United States — and treating them like any other criminal or terrorism suspect.
He says the prison he opened has hurt America’s image, and American values.
“The objective of any terrorist — be they Irish, Afghan or al-Qaida, doesn’t matter — is to change their adversary, their way of doing things, to change their behavior to make them afraid,” the general said. “They made us afraid.”
He doesn’t recall who coined the expression “worst of the worst” before he uttered it 12 years ago; for security reasons, he took no notes during his time at Guantánamo.
“I have many regrets, but calling them ‘the worst of the worst’ is not one of them,” said Lehnert.
He regrets, he said, that the United States did not more closely follow the Geneva Conventions when they were captured, and did not soon after their capture give them battlefield hearings “to sort these people out early.”
At Guantánamo, he said, he regrets that he permitted Camp X-Ray guards to cover their names on their uniforms — something other soldiers would later copy, notably at the Abu Ghraib prison where troops abused captives in Iraq.
“I think it sets up a mindset in the minds of the guards that you’re now anonymous,” he said of the decision to let those who were fearful start hiding their identities in the second month of the detention center operations.