WASHINGTON — The United States is holding dozens of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay who have no meaningful connection to Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and were sent to the maximum-security facility over the objections of intelligence officers in Afghanistan who had recommended them for release, according to military sources with direct knowledge of the matter.
At least 59 detainees -- nearly 10% of the prison population at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- were deemed to be of no intelligence value after repeated interrogations in Afghanistan. All were placed on "recommended for repatriation" lists well before they were transferred to Guantanamo Bay, a facility intended to hold the most hardened terrorists and Taliban suspects.
Dozens of the detainees are Afghan and Pakistani nationals described in classified intelligence reports as farmers, taxi drivers, cobblers and laborers. Some were low-level fighters conscripted by the Taliban in the weeks before the collapse of the ruling Afghan regime.
None of the 59 met U.S. screening criteria for determining which prisoners should be sent to Guantanamo Bay, military sources said. But all were transferred anyway, sources said, for reasons that continue to baffle and frustrate intelligence officers nearly a year after the first group of detainees arrived at the facility.
"There are a lot of guilty [people] in there," said one officer, "but there's a lot of farmers in there too."
The sources' accounts point to a previously undisclosed struggle within the military over the handling of the detainees. Even senior commanders were said to be troubled by the problems.
Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, the operational commander at Guantanamo Bay until October, traveled to Afghanistan in the spring to complain that too many "Mickey Mouse" detainees were being sent to the already crowded facility, sources said.
One senior Army officer described Dunlavey's visit as a "fact-finding" mission. But another who met with Dunlavey said the general's purpose was more direct: "He came over to chew us out," the officer said. Dunlavey, an Army reservist, declined to comment.
The sources blamed a host of problems, including flawed screening guidelines, policies that made it almost impossible to take prisoners off Guantanamo flight manifests and a pervasive fear of letting a valuable prisoner go free by mistake.
"No one wanted to be the guy who released the 21st hijacker," one officer said.
While that concern remains a legitimate one, the fact that dozens of the detainees are still in custody a year or more after their capture has become a source of deep concern to military officers engaged in the war on terrorism around the globe.
Many fear that detaining innocents, and providing no legal mechanism for appeal, can only breed distrust and animosity toward the U.S. -- not only in the home countries and governments of the prisoners but also among the inmates.
"We're basically condemning these guys to long-term imprisonment," said a military official who was a senior interrogator at Guantanamo Bay.
"If they weren't terrorists before, they certainly could be now."
Moreover, he said, even amid the tight security there is significant indoctrination of prisoners by radical Islamists among them.
The Afghan and Pakistani governments have raised the issue with Washington. A Pakistani embassy official, who declined to be identified, said his government is convinced that many of the 58 Pakistanis known to be in custody "probably joined the Taliban but didn't know how to spell Al Qaeda."
Even some prisoners red-flagged by the screening guidelines were clearly of no intelligence value and should not have been sent, military intelligence sources said.
One prisoner was transferred because he was Arab by birth and had once fought for the Taliban, thereby meeting two key screening criteria. But before the war he had sustained such a massive head injury that he could utter little more than his name and was known by interrogators at Guantanamo Bay as "half-head Bob."
"He had basically had a combat lobotomy," the interrogator said. "Every [intelligence report] on him from Afghanistan said, 'No value, no value, don't send him.' "
Others were grabbed by Pakistani soldiers patrolling the Afghan border who collected bounties for prisoners, sources said. One such prisoner was captured at a restaurant near the border where he claimed to have lived and worked for 20 years.
"He had the mental capacity to put flatbread in an oven and that was the extent of his intellect," the interrogator said. "He never got trained on a rifle, never got pressed into service. But he was Arab by birth so he was picked up and sent away."
Pentagon officials declined to discuss individual cases, but insist that the U.S. has reasonable grounds for holding all the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.