President Obama's plans to expeditiously determine the fates of about 245 terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and quickly close the military prison there were set back last week when incoming legal and national security officials -- barred until the inauguration from examining classified material on the detainees -- discovered that there were no comprehensive case files on many of them.
Instead, they found that information on individual prisoners is "scattered throughout the executive branch," a senior administration official said. The executive order Obama signed Thursday orders the prison closed within one year, and a Cabinet-level panel named to review each case separately will have to spend its initial weeks and perhaps months scouring the corners of the federal government in search of relevant material.
Several former Bush administration officials agreed that the files are incomplete and that no single government entity was charged with pulling together all the facts and the range of options for each prisoner. They said that the CIA and other intelligence agencies were reluctant to share information, and that the Bush administration's focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority.
Charles D. "Cully" Stimson, who served as deputy assistant defense secretary for detainee affairs in 2006-2007, said he had persistent problems in attempts to assemble all information on individual cases. Threats to recommend the release or transfer of a detainee were often required, he said, to persuade the CIA to "cough up a sentence or two."
A second former Pentagon official said most individual files are heavily summarized dossiers that do not contain the kind of background and investigative work that would be put together by a federal prosecution team. He described "regular food fights" among different parts of the government over information-sharing on the detainees.
A CIA spokesman denied that the agency had not been "forthcoming" with detainee information, saying that such suggestions were "simply wrong" and that "we have worked very closely with other agencies to share what we know" about the prisoners. While denying there had been problems, one intelligence official said the Defense Department was far more likely to be responsible for any information lapses, since it had initially detained and interrogated most of the prisoners and had been in charge of them at the prison.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that the Defense Department would cooperate fully in the review.
"Fundamentally, we believe that the individual files on each detainee are comprehensive and sufficiently organized," Morrell said. He added that "in many cases, there will be thousands of pages of documents . . . which makes a comprehensive assessment a time-consuming endeavor."
"Not all the documents are physically located in one place," Morrell said, but most are available through a database.
"The main point here is that there are lots of records, and we are prepared to make them available to anybody who needs to see them as part of this review."
There have been indications from within and outside the government for some time, however, that evidence and other materials on the Guantanamo prisoners were in disarray, even though most of the detainees have been held for years.
Justice Department lawyers responding in federal courts to defense challenges over the past six months have said repeatedly that the government was overwhelmed by the sudden need to assemble material after Supreme Court rulings giving detainees habeas corpus and other rights.
In one federal filing, the Justice Department said that "the record . . . is not simply a collection of papers sitting in a box at the Defense Department. It is a massive undertaking just to produce the record in this one case." In another filing, the department said that "defending these cases requires an intense, inter-agency coordination of efforts. None of the relevant agencies, however, was prepared to handle this volume of habeas cases on an expedited basis."
Evidence gathered for military commission trials is in disarray, according to some former officials, who said military lawyers lacked the trial experience to prosecute complex international terrorism cases.
In a court filing this month, Darrel Vandeveld, a former military prosecutor at Guantanamo who asked to be relieved of his duties, said evidence was "strewn throughout the prosecution offices in desk drawers, bookcases packed with vaguely-labeled plastic containers, or even simply piled on the tops of desks."
He said he once accidentally found "crucial physical evidence" that "had been tossed in a locker located at Guantanamo and promptly forgotten."
If these people are so incredibly dangerous, doesn't it make fucking sense to deal with them in some kind of organized fashion, so everyone would know exactly what they are dealing with? Apparently not to Bush. And the toughtalking, swaggering, brush clearing cowboy was able to bully the CIA when it came to getting information shaped the way he wanted it during the runup to Iraq, but when it comes to making them share information on the allegedly most dangerous people in the world, people so menacing that we had to subvert the Constitution and international law in order to deny them trials and keep them locked up, well, he was just too weak to get that job done.
It's Bush to a T: cynical, amoral symbolism backed by utterly inept management, poor planning, and no think-through. And this is the guy the conservatives are saying "kept us safe." Bullshit. If you can't maintain decent records on the most scary, bad men the world has ever known, you can't work shoplifting security at Walmart.
Guantanamo, the PATRIOT Act, FISA, the Military commissions Act -- it's our generation's Japanese Internment, Bull Connor, black list -- our generation's stain that future generations will look back on and feel superior to us for, and tell themselves they'll never be so short-sighted as to make the same mistakes.