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All The Piece’s Matter...Unless They Don’t: Guantanamo, America’s Best Recidivism Rate

(On Monday, I said that intelligence and evidence were two sides of the same coin. Today, I provide a case study to back that up.)

In my post about Brazil (the film), I made an analogy between a connect-the-dots puzzle and intelligence work. Do we, as intelligence analysts, connect the dots, or do we make up figures out of meaningless dots?

Take the case of Abdullah Mehsud. Taken to Guantanamo in 2001, he claimed to be a Taliban conscript who was there against his will. Due to his cooperative nature, he was promptly released. He went back to Pakistan and killed 31 people in a bombing.

Or take the converse, Murat Kurnaz. Despite assessments calling him a “high-risk” detainee, the U.S. authorities released him. He hasn’t gone on to become a terrorist, but a highly vocal critic of America.

The recently Wikileaked Guantanamo files bring this question into sharp focus. Throughout the reporting by The New York Times, The Guardian, NPR, The McClatchy Papers and others, the common theme emerges that intelligence analysts on that island had very little idea if they were connecting dots or just making them up. But more than anything else, the Guantanamo papers show that intelligence and evidence might as well be synonymous.

The Similarities Between Intelligence and Evidence

In Guantanamo, intelligence analysts tried to answer this question, “What do we do with these people?” At first, as the reports show, this meant gathering “actionable” intelligence. With detainees completely isolated on Guantanamo, this eventually dried up. (President Obama’s decision to use more drone strikes contributed to the lack of candidates for Guantanamo as well.)

The question then became, “Well, who can we release that won’t cause America harm?” Or, as the various news organizations report, “Who can we prosecute?” The difference between intelligence and criminal investigation disappeared. The analysts--many of whom had very little personal experience with detective or legal work--did their best to determine the answers to these questions.

Partly because Guantanamo is primarily a military/intelligence operation, the evidence for criminal prosecution never passed muster, for American courts or consequent military tribunals. In fact, while many of the detainees passed the intelligence requirements to be detained--a very low standard--analysts couldn’t actually link them to terrorist activities.

This whole process, from detention to exploitation to determination of guilt, is criminal justice in a international sense. When an intelligence analyst gathers information and writes a report to make a determination of guilt or innocence, they might as well call themselves a detective. Whether that report goes to a senior military or intelligence official, as opposed to a district attorney or judge, the result is the same.

The Problems of Guantanamo

The biggest hindrance, as this New York Times article points out, is that unlike, say, the FBI working on American soil, the analysts and interrogators had few opportunities to gather additional evidence to confirm or deny the detainees’ guilt or innocence. They couldn’t question additional witnesses in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The only physical evidence was the personal belongings of the captured individuals. So the primary form of evidence (read: intelligence) was the testimony and confessions of fellow inmates.

Does this sound like a situation where analysts could connect the dots out of random data points? Consider these pieces of evidence that led to suspicions of guilt:

- If a suspected terrorist had flight itineraries, he probably planned to conduct a terrorist attack after that flight. If a suspected terrorist didn’t have flight itineraries, it meant that he had destroyed his personal documents to conceal his travel plans.

- If a suspected terrorist said he was a farmer or merchant, he was using a common terrorist persona. If he claimed to be a terrorist, then he was a terrorist. No matter what the subject claims to be, it could be evidence he is a terrorist.

- If a suspect has a Casio watch, he could be a terrorist. This is the most popular watch in south Asia.

- Finally, if a suspect repeatedly denied being in Al Qaeda, he could either be: a. well versed in Al Qaeda deception techniques, or b. completely innocent.

Combine the facts that a handful of “witnesses” provided the bulk of the “intelligence/evidence” against fellow detainees and that much of their “testimony” was later completely discredited, doing proper intelligence work was practically impossible.

More than proving my thesis that intelligence is evidence, the Guantanamo files reveal that the United States intelligence community still hasn’t realized its role in counter-terrorism. Intelligence--typified by the CIA--and evidence--typified by the FBI--should work together, hand in hand. If anything, intelligence folks need to embrace the techniques, tactics, procedures, methods, strategies and practices of criminal investigation, not the other way around. American criminal investigations garner confidence in the outcomes, something we sorely need in the intelligence community.

“All the pieces matter,” says a prescient detective on The Wire. But they don’t matter if they don’t actually matter.

six comments

And, as we will write about more later—as the details come out and either get confirmed or denied—they new that Osama’s courier was legit, because high levels detainees denied knowing the name.

If that isn’t circular logic, I don’t know what is.

(Do have to be careful though, the details keep changing as they come out.)


Yeah the last part of the title is a dig at the fact that most of guantanamo’s inmates do not go back into terrorist activities. I doubt though, it is because of recidivism efforts.


I heard the Casio watch example before. It’s hard for me to believe owning a Casio watch was in itself a red flag.


I think the word “evidence” presents a better public image than “intelligence” too because it sounds more legalistic and at least gives the impression of due process to whatever actions come about as a result of the evidence/intelligence.


I disagree with you slightly Will. I see intelligence popping up more and more, especially after the bin Laden raid. Intelligence sounds like secrecy, James Bond, and high tech, all things intelligence people want to be associated with.


Ok, maybe intel people like the word “intelligence” because it sounds cooler and more bada**. My point is just that calling it evidence publicly might lessen the scrutiny a bit if things go wrong.