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“Sometimes, we just didn’t get the right folks.”

— Brigadier General Jay Hood, the top American officer in Guantanamo, to Wall Street Journal, 2005
On January 11, 2002, the first 20 prisoners picked up in Afghanistan arrived in Guantánamo, where the Bush administration believed they would be out of reach of U.S. courts. News photos show the men dressed in orange jumpsuits, shackled, with gloves, goggles, surgical masks and headphones for sensory deprivation.. [photo] Hundreds more prisoners followed.
But who are they, and were they really the so-called “worst of the worst”?

The Captured Men

According to Pentagon data analyzed in a report by professors and students of Seton Hall Law School, we now know that of the 774 men who have been or are currently detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison:
  • Only a handful of the detainees were captured by U.S. forces.
  • Few were captured on the “battlefield.”
  • Most were sold to the U.S. military for bounties. The military dropped leaflets offering bounties of thousands of dollars in exchange for terrorists from helicopters in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Prisoners: “Worst of the Worst”?

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld informed the men’s captors and the world that these men were “the worst of the worst.” They were called the worst of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But according to several members of the administration, very few of the men belonged there. In March 2009, the Washington Note published a guest column by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, revealing that most of the men sent to Guantanamo were innocent, and the administration knew it but kept them anyway, thinking that anyone who was in Afghanistan must have some intelligence value.  According to a declaration (PDF) that Colonel Wilkerson made in March 2010, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld all knew the vast majority of detainees at Guantánamo were innocent but failed to do anything about it for political reasons.
The Bush administration’s release of more than 500 Guantánamo prisoners and the substantial number of habeas rulings in the remaining detainees' favor appear to support Wilkerson’s claim, as does the men’s extremely low recidivism rate of 5 percent or less (compared to a rate of 68 percent for prisoners in the U.S.), despite the men’s lengthy, unjust imprisonment and mistreatment and the Bush administration’s practice of releasing prisoners on the basis of its ties to the prisoners’ home countries, rather than through court oversight. The lack of court oversight also negates former Vice President Cheney’s claims made in a May 10 televised interview on Face the Nation  that the prisoners who remain at Guantánamo are really the worst of the worst, who would have a "recidivism rate of 50 to 60 percent," and that they "want to be released so that they can kill more Americans."  Many innocent men are now in their eighth year at Guantánamo.

A Law-Free Zone

For the first four years, the Bush administration did everything it could to keep the men from enjoying basic legal protections, such as the writ of habeas corpus. But in all four cases involving detainees that the Supreme Court has taken, it has ruled against the Bush administration’s notions that it is above the law and that Guantanamo Bay is beyond the reach of U.S. courts. 
The Supreme Court included the fourth detainee case, Boumediene v. Bush, in its 2007-2008 docket only after the justices read  the June 14, 2007, declaration of Stephen Abraham, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, who wrote that the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) conducted at Guantánamo as a substitute for habeas corpus petitions were a complete sham. Abraham came to that conclusion both as a member of a three-judge panel and through his assignment to “gather or validate information relating to [Guantánamo] detainees for use in CSRTs.” 
Among Abraham’s observations questioning the fairness of the CSRTs, he wrote:
“I was specifically told on a number of occasions that the information provided to me was all that I would be shown, but I was never told that the information that was provided constituted all available information. On those occasions when I asked that a representative of the organization provide a written statement that there was no exculpatory evidence, the requests were summarily denied.”
In its June 2008 ruling in the fourth case, Boumediene v. Bush, the majority ruled that detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison are entitled to the writ of habeas corpus.  Read more about U.S. Supreme Court rulings on behalf of detainees in Enemy Combatant Detainees: Habeas Corpus Challenges in Federal Court, Congressional Research Service, July 29, 2008.

Harsh Interrogations and Treatment

Moreover, the prison was set up for interrogation. Conditions have been harsh, and beatings and isolation of prisoners have been common. When useful information wasn’t flowing, in November 2002, Major General Geoffrey Miller was given command of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo, where he implemented a system of techniques for softening up prisoners for interrogations that the International Red Cross called “tantamount to torture."  The same techniques were later used at Abu Ghraib prison in Afghanistan, Miller’s next assignment, until they were revealed in photographs taken by prison guards.
Following the January 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, the Pentagon investigated itself and declared conditions at Guantanamo to be humane. However, attorneys for several remaining detainees and detainees themselves have reported that conditions since Obama took office have worsened and torture has increased. 
The system of torture, deprivation and rewards for useful information led many Guantanamo prisoners to make false confessions, such as that they or others at the prison were at al-Qaeda training camps. One prisoner’s false confessions may be responsible for several innocent men’s continued detention at Guantanamo.
Read the composite statement Detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay by former Guantánamo detainees Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, who confessed to attending al-Qaeda training camps, only to be released after officials from the UK corroborated their original stories-- that they had been working and going to school in the U.K. during the time period when they were supposedly training to be al-Qaeda terrorists.