So what is the big deal about releasing names of the approximately 490 detainees the U.S. holds at the detention center at its base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? The ACLU, Amnesty International, and the hard left activist groups trying to establish detainee “rights” are pleased. The U.S. government, which opposed release of the names, is unhappy. What issues are involved?
The government argued the case for secrecy primarily by focusing on detainee privacy. In other words, if certain elements – residual Taliban and active al-Qaeda, for example – are aware of the presence of a certain terrorist in Guantanamo Bay, they might retaliate against his family. This would be an especially effective tactic against an Afghani detainee, since they retain and value family and tribal relationships more than the al-Qaeda “foreign” fighters who normally abandon family to fight the infidel in remote locations.
A federal judge determined that the documents in question – 5,000 pages of military proceedings transcripts requested by Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request – must be released to the public. And so they have been. The documents do not provide a list of names, per se, of the detainees, but refer inter alia to the subjects of the particular legal proceeding under way at the time the transcripts were recorded. In other words, the judge might refer to a detainee as “Jumma Jan,” as happened in one instance. In such a manner the names are revealed. It takes a bit of digging, but not much, to get all the names referenced in the text.
Frankly, it seems that the government lawyers took the wrong tack in arguing this case for secrecy. The most relevant, persuasive argument for secrecy remains – as is usual in referring to the Guantanamo detainees – a national security issue rather than an individual privacy issue. First and foremost the identities of the Gitmo detainees, especially the al-Qaeda operatives, are a national secret that ought to be protected. Here’s why.
In the weeks following the September 11, 2001 attacks, American Special Forces working with Northern Alliance leaders turned Afghanistan into a chaotic battlefield. No one expected the Green Berets assisted by precision air power to be able to conquer a country that had devoured Soviet troops by the thousands for more than a decade.
Robin Moore in his excellent book The Hunt for Bin Laden recounts that “prisoners of war became a huge problem” around Mazir-e-Sharif, and that in the Kunduz area Northern Alliance leaders had to deal with “vast amounts of prisoners.” From the outset the number of Taliban (mostly) and al-Qaeda who had either been captured or voluntarily surrendered quickly overtaxed the rudimentary infrastructure that was Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
There were no paved roads, precious few trucks, no designated holding compounds, barely enough food to sustain the Northern Alliance fighters leaving little for the prisoners, no medical supplies, and no established handling procedures for prisoners, especially for the virulent al-Qaeda fighters. As was seen early on in the prison revolt in Qala-i-Jangi on November 25, 2001, al-Qaeda gave up only long enough to return to the fight. CIA special operative Johnny Spann was killed there along with several hundred Afghans and foreign fighters in the ensuing battle.
During the fighting the Afghans typically buried their own and tossed the detested Arabs and foreigner bodies – the al-Qaeda – into ditches to rot. It was not until America got some order into the chaos that even basic prisoner handling procedures were instituted and some of the prisoners, who had not escaped by that time, were properly screened. Out of the approximately 70,000 battlefield captures only 800 or fewer were evacuated to Guantanamo for additional interrogation or detention.
Because of the chaos – thousands of unknowns killed, captured, or wounded in the fighting. Thousands more possibly fled to neighboring countries or driven underground, the entire roster of fighters – no doubt kept loosely at best – became a complete mystery to al-Qaeda leaders. They could not be certain in other than a few verifiable instances of who was killed and who survived. They were almost completely in the dark which is where we want them. No longer.
The net effect is that top al-Qaeda leadership did not know, until the media and the leftist attorneys forced release of the documents, the names of most of those detained at Guantanamo. Ignorance forced the al-Qaeda leaders to assume the worst: that those with key information were being held and interrogated in the camps and that many of their upcoming operations were compromised.
Since quite a few of the detainees are financial and organizational specialists – but al-Qaeda doesn’t know exactly who – the organization has been pressured to change its methods of communication and operation, particularly in regard to money laundering and recruitment. By being forced to move and change, al-Qaeda draws attention to itself, making detection easier. Once we know that al-Qaeda is active in certain areas then we can implement effective counter-measures.
You can bet that the al-Qaeda organizational leaders around the world are going to be combing the newly-released documents finely. They will extract the names – or in many cases the nom de guerre or battlefield aliases - of the detainees in order to see just which of their secrets might have been compromised and what they might not have to worry about. They are less concerned with retribution to a detainee’s family – although that aspect of their methodology cannot be casually discounted – than they are about what secrets might have been revealed.
It is perhaps even more important that they know who is not at Guantanamo. Once they are confident that certain secrets could not have been compromised because the key man is not held at Gitmo then they can continue business as usual. That business might involve sleeper cells in America waiting to strike with anthrax, poison gas, or dirty bombs. Regardless, we have now ignorantly and cheerfully cleared away another obstacle in al-Qaeda’s unrelenting, continuing war on America. Congratulations to the media and the hand-wringing “human rights” activists who care more for terrorists than for fellow citizens.
Secrecy is a critically important weapon in warfare and especially in the shadowy conflict in which we are presently engaged. To relinquish secrets capriciously as has been done repeatedly by an irresponsible media in regard to detention camps and counter-terrorist communications intercepts has harmed our war effort immeasurably. This latest triumph of the left simply weakens our position further, endangers citizens of this country, and prolongs what most already expect to be a drawn-out fight.
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