When the first prisoners from the war on terrorism arrived at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, their rights and treatment became the subject of heated international debate. Should those incarcerated be considered prisoners of war? Could they be brought before military tribunals? To what diplomatic and legal representation might they be entitled? But there has been comparatively little discussion of one of the Bush administration's key purposes in establishing this facility: namely, the gathering of intelligence on terrorist activities. What kind of effort is under way at Guantanamo, and just how useful has it been?
The scale of the operation at Guantanamo is impressive. At last report the facility held 560 people from 38 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Bosnia, Belgium, Denmark, Great Britain and Australia. The prison compound, called "Camp X-Ray," sits on the north end of the Guantanamo base, near a junkyard and a rock quarry, and it was originally designed to handle troublemakers among the Haitian and Cuban boat people in the mid-1990s. Staffing levels have nearly doubled since the first new prisoners arrived on Jan. 11, 2002, less than a week after construction crews had begun refurbishing the compound. Conditions at the new compound were so primitive that the camp's reopening sparked an international outcry, which set back the start of interrogations by several weeks.
"As long as we're getting information, we're going to ask them questions," Marine Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, then the overall commander of the prison unit, told reporters. And it was not long before interrogators at Guantanamo obtained their first breakthrough. On the strength of that information, the U.S. government issued an alert on Feb. 11 that listed 17 terrorists, named their Yemeni chieftain and warned of an imminent terrorist incident in either the United States or Yemen. Bush administration officials differed widely on the value of the information; some called it uncorroborated, and even Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge relegated it to the status of a standard FBI advisory. As it turned out, no incident took place, and six of the people on the list were already in Yemeni jails.
Extracting information from hostile prisoners is not simple, and these prisoners may be particularly sophisticated when it comes to concealing what they know. At Guantanamo, interrogation is the province of a unit known as Joint Task Force 170, which includes more than 30 "human intelligence collectors," as the U.S. Army terms its interviewers, and an equal number of translators. The interviewers come from the ranks of the armed services, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA and the FBI.
Working in teams of two and three, the inquisitors determine strategy during a huddle prior to each encounter. Without physical coercion or drugs, they try to break down their subjects' resistance with all the tricks careful interrogators are known to use: They poke holes in the captives' stories of how each was taken prisoner, pretend to already know the answers they seek, mislead the prisoners about who else has been captured and play good cop-bad cop. Held in open sheds with chain-link fences for walls, their compound lit all night by halogen floodlights, the prisoners tend to be rattled to begin with. In the camp's early weeks of operation, guards blindfolded prisoners and carried them to interrogation huts on stretchers in order to further disorient them. Papers filed in the case of John Walker Lindh state that as many as 20 prisoners gave statements to authorities. At the time these papers were filed, there were only 300 prisoners at Camp X-Ray.
As intensive as these interrogation tactics are, scattered reports indicate that al-Qaeda members may have had training in countering them. A terrorist training manual seized in England, and available to U.S. authorities before September 11, contains a full chapter on interrogation and investigation, calling the former "psychological warfare and intellectual combat between the intelligence agent and the suspect through questions and answers related to one or more topics." The manual is similar to others recovered in the Afghanistan campaign. Among its instructions are to admit nothing, to confirm information without adding to it when confronted by data presumably gained by interrogators from someone else, to agree with comrades on a security plan and to relate to commanders exactly what transpired during a session. At Camp X-Ray, prisoners acting as chiefs of their shelters are known to have kept track of the questioning. In one instance, advice to prisoners coincides with interrogation techniques: Captains are enjoined, if speech is necessary at all, to talk about the Koran. Interrogators seeking to open communication are quite prepared to do just that. Some of today's most interesting discussions of the Islamic theology must be happening in Guantanamo's interrogation huts.
When al-Qaeda prisoners actually do divulge information on subjects other than the Koran, why assume it's accurate? That's the question that has attended revelations from former al-Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubaydah, poster boy for the interrogation program. Captured on March 28, 2002, Zubaydah was the source for information that led to the May 8 arrest of Jose Padilla, accused of plotting to create and detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States. Because Padilla left Pakistan in early April, and because U.S. intelligence placed him under surveillance in Europe before he returned to America, the United States must have had the tip from early on in Zubaydah's captivity. This suggests that Zubaydah may have used the disclosure to gain credibility with his inquisitors. Soon afterward, Zubaydah suggested that al-Qaeda would strike banks, shopping centers, apartment houses and, during Memorial Day weekend, the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge.
These warnings caused considerable anguish and disruption in the United States. And in calling forth such threats, Zubaydah may well have been playing the very psychological game the terror manuals endorse. His inquisitors, meanwhile, were at a loss when Zubaydah spoke of an attack on "the bridge in that movie." They had to find and sit through Hollywood's 1998 remake of the film Godzilla to uncover the reference to the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Zubaydah incident highlights some of the difficulties Guantanamo's interrogators face. Guantanamo belongs to the U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for Latin America. Its data and expertise primarily involve drug lords and Latin American political movements. It's the U.S. Central Command, on the other hand, that's carrying out much of the war on terrorism. Joint Task Force 170's inquisitors are a mix of experienced interrogators and neophytes, and they have divided their efforts between gathering intelligence and building evidence for prosecutions. Translation is a particular headache: The Army pulled cooks and mechanics out of their units if they had the right languages, but still had to contract with two commercial companies, DTG Corporation and Worldwide Language Services.
Delegations from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence have confirmed the problems at the interrogation camp. Having visited Guantanamo both before and twice after the start of the interrogations, the groups found that "efforts have been hampered by a lack of appropriate training, a dearth of language-skilled personnel, and a lack of depth and breadth of analytic expertise," and that "the organizational construct of the ... detention facilities/operations may also be impeding collection efforts." In its report on the intelligence budget for fiscal year 2003 the committee declared itself "very concerned."
Nevertheless, the Bush administration intends to enlarge its Guantanamo operation considerably. Plans to build compounds for up to 2,000 prisoners, described in January as an outside contingency, went forward six months later. A second site, Camp Delta, is already open. How the House committee's assessment may have affected the budget is classified. But it doesn't look like the administration has gotten the intelligence windfall it hoped for. Stay tuned.