Those of us who have been studying the recent career of Col. Lawrence Wilkerson were not surprised when, last week, he submitted a declaration (PDF) in a lawsuit seeking compensation from the US government that was filed by former Guantánamo prisoner Adel Hassan Hamad. A Sudanese hospital worker, Hamad was sold to US forces by their unscrupulous Pakistani allies in the summer of 2002, but was only released from Guantánamo in December 2007.
In the declaration, Col. Wilkerson, who served in the US military for 31 years and was Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from August 2002 until January 2005, stated that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld all knew — and didn’t care — that “the vast majority of Guantánamo detainees were innocent.”
Last March, Col. Wilkerson wrote a guest column for The Washington Note, “Some Truths About Guantánamo Bay,” in which he first laid out some of his major complaints about the failures of the Bush administration’s detention policies in the “War on Terror.” In his column, Col. Wilkerson decried “the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the US operations there,” and explained, “Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation.”
Col. Wilkerson also wrote that:
[S]everal in the US leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released. But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers.
Furthermore, Col. Wilkerson wrote:
[I]t has never come to my attention in any persuasive way — from classified information or otherwise — that any intelligence of significance was gained from any of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay other than from the handful of undisputed ring leaders and their companions, clearly no more than a dozen or two of the detainees, and even their alleged contribution of hard, actionable intelligence is intensely disputed in the relevant communities such as intelligence and law enforcement. This is perhaps the most astounding truth of all, carefully masked by men such as Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney in their loud rhetoric — continuing even now in the case of Cheney — about future attacks thwarted, resurgent terrorists, the indisputable need for torture and harsh interrogation and for secret prisons and places such as GITMO.
Col. Wilkerson’s attacks on the Bush administration’s incompetence reflected what I and other researchers had discovered, and as a result, I felt emboldened to approach him, to ask if he would agree to an interview. I was delighted when he accepted, and the resulting two-part interview was published by the Future of Freedom Foundation last August and September.
In it, Col. Wilkerson expanded on the chaotic detention policies following the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and explained how the State Department had been left trying to deal with countries who wanted their citizens back. He conceded that they were largely kept out of the loop by Cheney and Rumsfeld, and added how, in Colin Powell’s opinion, President Bush had “no idea” of the “magnitude” of what Cheney was up to behind the scenes. He also reiterated that there was no reason for the majority of the prisoners to have been held, citing an unnamed colleague, who told him, after 742 prisoners had been transported to Guantánamo, “I’ll tell you right now that 700 of them haven’t done a damn thing except get in the way of somebody capturing them.”
Col. Wilkerson also dropped a bombshell about intelligence gathering, explaining how, “from talking to hundreds of people, literally,” he had recently become convinced that, although he had previously thought that the administration’s fear of another terrorist attack persisted throughout 2002 (in other words, when the entire torture program was being developed), “their fear of another attack subsided rather rapidly after their attention turned to Iraq, and after Tommy Franks, in late November  as I recall, was directed to begin planning for Iraq and to take his focus off Afghanistan.”
Despite these previous attacks on the Bush administration, Col. Wilkerson’s declaration in support of Adel Hassan Hamad’s claim for compensation is welcome for a number of reasons. The first is because memories are chronically short in this world of endless rolling news, and many people (both journalists and the general public) may have forgotten — if they ever noticed — that Col. Wilkerson has been waging a one-man assault on the Bush administration for the last year.
The second is because he finally implicates George W. Bush in the policies largely implemented by Cheney and Rumsfeld; and the third is because the Obama administration has reached something akin to paralysis in its attempts to close Guantánamo, and the innocent men still detained there — as well as the handful of genuine terrorist suspects — deserve either freedom or a fair trial, so that the abomination that is Guantánamo can finally be closed.
A fourth reason, perhaps most damning of all, concerns the entire basis of the detention policies — to facilitate interrogations — and here Col. Wilkerson expands on his revelation, last summer, that the gathering of intelligence was subverted to justify the invasion of Iraq rather than to protect the American people from another terrorist attack.
The first point is self-evident, as is apparent from mainstream media reporters who appear not to have noticed before that, as Col. Wilkerson explained in his declaration, “many of the prisoners detained at Guantánamo had been taken into custody without regard to whether they were truly enemy combatants, or in fact whether many of them were enemies at all,” and that many were “victims of incompetent battlefield vetting.”
Col. Wilkerson also pointed out that “predominantly US forces were not the ones who were taking prisoners in the first place,” explaining that “Instead, we relied on Afghans, such as General Dostum’s forces, and upon Pakistanis, to hand over prisoners whom they had apprehended, or who had been turned over to them for bounties, sometimes as much as $5,000 a head.” As he also explained, “I recall conversations with serving military officers at the time, who told me that many detainees were turned over for the wrong reasons, particularly for bounties and other incentives.”
Col. Wilkerson also explained that, “by late August 2002, I found that of the initial 742 detainees that had arrived at Guantánamo, the majority of them had never seen a US soldier in the process of their initial detention and their captivity had not been subjected to any meaningful review.”
Clearly troubled by this, he added that it also became “more and more clear that many of the men were innocent, or at a minimum their guilt was impossible to determine let alone prove in any court of law, civilian or military,” and that, during his morning briefings, Colin Powell “often expressed that he was particularly troubled by the lack of a plan regarding final disposition for the detainees, especially if the idea was to keep them in indefinite detention, without trial, forever.”
Spelling out the Bush administration’s incompetence more clearly than before, Col. Wilkerson added that “At least part of the problem was that it was politically impossible to release them,” and that one particular concern was that, through releasing prisoners, “the detention efforts at Guantánamo would be revealed as the incredibly confused operation that they were.”
As in his previous articles and interviews, he also made it clear that a major stumbling block to the release of prisoners was Donald Rumsfeld, who “just refused to let detainees go,” and that another was Dick Cheney, who “had absolutely no concern that the vast majority of Guantánamo detainees were innocent, or that there was a lack of any useable evidence for the great majority of them. If hundreds of innocent individuals had to suffer in order to detain a handful of hardcore terrorists, so be it. That seemed to be the philosophy that ruled in the Vice President’s Office.”
However, whereas, last summer, Col. Wilkerson had indicated to me that President Bush had little idea of the extent to which Cheney was running the government’s post-9/11 policies, in his declaration he fully implicated the President, noting that, although “it was easy for Vice President Cheney to run circles around President Bush bureaucratically because Cheney had the network within the government to do so,” and that he “could more often than not gain the President’s acquiescence” by “exploiting what Secretary Powell called the President’s ‘cowboy instincts,’” Powell also told him that, in his opinion, “it was not just Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld, but also President Bush who was involved in all of the Guantánamo decision making.”
The third point — President Obama’s inability to close Guantánamo — is particularly relevant right now. This was largely outside the scope of Col. Wilkerson’s remit for the declaration, but it was depressing to realize, while reviewing his earlier pronouncements, that a year ago he had pointed out “the now prevalent supposition, recently reinforced by the new team in the White House, that closing down our prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay would take some time and development of a highly complex plan. Because of the unfortunate political realities now involved — Cheney’s recent strident and almost unparalleled remarks about the dangers of pampering terrorists, and the vulnerability of the Democrats in general on any national security issue — this may have some truth to it. But in terms of the physical and safe shutdown of the prison facilities it is nonsense.”
In light of Col. Wilkerson’s explanations about the insignificance of the majority of the Guantánamo prisoners, it is depressing indeed to realize that, one year after he wrote these comments, 183 men are still held at Guantánamo, and the government’s own Task Force has reinforced Col. Wilkerson’s fears regarding the vulnerability of the Democrats on national security issues by recommending that, although 35 men should be tried, 47 others should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial.
Col. Wilkerson has done a great service to those of us (like myself and staff and students at the Seton Hall Law School) who have studied the prisoners’ stories in depth, and have persistently pointed out that there are no valid reasons for holding the majority of the prisoners who are still in Guantánamo. However, the fact that so little progress has been achieved in the last year — and that, in fact, the Obama administration is more clearly wracked by caution, cowardice and inertia than ever before — really should give added weight and urgency to his analysis.
Sadly, the media’s main focus — as part of the relentless spin-cycle of news I mentioned above — has been more on Col. Wilkerson’s revelations about President Bush’s knowledge of the failure of his experiment in detention and interrogation, and rather less on the lack of any rationale for holding the majority of the 183 men who still languish at Guantánamo.
Also overlooked, with implications that are no less grave, are Col. Wilkerson’s ongoing revelations about how the entire process of interrogation, which led to the widespread use of torture, was not to protect America from another terrorist attack, but was, instead, designed to extract information that would justify the illegal invasion of Iraq. This was a bombshell when Col. Wilkerson revealed it to me last summer, and it remains no less shocking now. As he explained in his declaration:
For the Vice President, Secretary Rumsfeld and others, the primary issue was to gain more intelligence as quickly as possible, both on al-Qaeda and its current and future plans but increasingly also, in 2002-2003, on contacts between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and secret police in Iraq. Their view was that innocent people languishing in Guantánamo for years … was deemed acceptable if led to a more complete and satisfactory intelligence picture with regard to Iraq, thus justifying the Administration’s plans for war with that country.
In his closing comments, Col. Wilkerson noted, “I have made a personal choice to come forward and discuss the abuses that occurred because knowledge that I served in an Administration that tortured and abused those it detained at the facilities at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere and indefinitely detained the innocent for political reasons has marked a low point in my professional career and I wish to make the record clear on what occurred.”
In doing so, I hope that Col. Wilkerson’s statements not only lead to pressure for the release of the majority of the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo, but also contribute to calls for those who authorized the torture and abuse to be held accountable for their actions. These are calls which, in law-abiding circles, have increased since the recent whitewash of a report recommending disciplinary action for John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, the authors of the “torture memos,” which purported to redefine torture so that it could be used by the CIA — and which then migrated to the military.
For Col. Wilkerson, who remains “extremely concerned that the Armed Forces of the United States, where I spent 31 years of my professional life, were deeply involved in these tragic mistakes,” the need for accountability has a particularly personal meaning, but for the rest of us, it should be no less important that torture was used to justify an illegal war, that it infected the US military, that those who authorized it remain free to continue spreading their poisonous lies (in Dick Cheney’s case, at least), and that men continue to languish in Guantánamo as a result of it — and also as a result of the Obama administration’s unwillingness, or refusal to confront the very facts that Col. Wilkerson has disclosed.
This column was first published on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.
Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. He maintains a blog at andyworthington.co.uk.