Andrew O. Selsky / Associated Press – 2009-03-21 00:27:33
SAN JUAN. Puerto Rico (March 20, 2009) — Many detainees locked up at Guantanamo were innocent men swept up by U.S. forces unable to distinguish enemies from noncombatants, a former Bush administration official said Thursday.
“There are still innocent people there,” Lawrence Wilkerson, a Republican who was chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, told the Associated Press. “Some have been there six or seven years.”
Wilkerson, who first made the assertions in an Internet posting Tuesday, told the AP he learned from briefings and by communicating with military commanders that the United States soon realized many Guantanamo detainees were innocent but nevertheless held them in hopes they could provide information for a “mosaic” of intelligence.
“It did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance,” Wilkerson wrote in the blog. He said intelligence analysts hoped to gather “sufficient information about a village, a region, or a group of individuals, that dots could be connected and terrorists or their plots could be identified.”
Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel, said vetting on the battlefield during the early stages of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan was incompetent with no meaningful attempt to discriminate “who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation.”
Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on Wilkerson’s specific allegations but noted that the military has consistently said that dealing with foreign fighters from a wide variety of countries in a wartime setting was a complex process. The military has insisted that those held at Guantanamo were enemy combatants and posed a threat to the United States.
In his posting for the Washington Note blog, Wilkerson wrote that “U.S. 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.”
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney fought efforts to address the situation, Wilkerson said, because “to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership.”
Wilkerson told the AP in a telephone interview that many detainees “clearly had no connection to al Qaeda and the Taliban and were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Pakistanis turned many over for $5,000 a head.”
Some 800 men have been held at Guantanamo since the prison opened in January 2002, and 240 remain. Wilkerson said two dozen are terrorists, including confessed Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was transferred to Guantanamo from CIA custody in September 2006.
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