Said Mohammed Alam Shah, a 24-year-old Afghan who had lost a leg as a teenager, told interrogators at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that he had been conscripted by the Taliban as a driver before being detained in 2001. He had been caught, he said, as he tried to “rescue his younger brother from the Taliban.”
Military analysts believed him. Mr. Shah, who had been outfitted with a prosthetic leg by prison doctors, was “cooperative” and “has not expressed thoughts of violence or made threats toward the U.S. or its allies,” according to a sympathetic 2003 assessment. Its conclusion: “Detainee does not pose a future threat to the U.S. or U.S. interests.”
So in 2004 Mr. Shah was sent back to Afghanistan — where he promptly revealed himself to be Abdullah Mehsud, a Pakistan-born militant, and began plotting mayhem. He recorded jihadist videos, organized a Taliban force to fight American troops, planned an attack on Pakistan’s interior minister that killed 31 people, oversaw the kidnapping of two Chinese engineers, and finally detonated a suicide bomb in 2007 as the Pakistani Army closed in. His martyrdom was hailed in an audio message by none other than Osama bin Laden.
The Guantánamo analysts’ complete misreading of Abdullah Mehsud was included among hundreds of classified assessments of detainees at the prison in Cuba that were obtained by The New York Times. The unredacted assessments give the fullest public picture to date of the prisoners held at Guantánamo over the past nine years. They show that the United States has imprisoned hundreds of men for years without trial based on a difficult and strikingly subjective evaluation of who they were, what they had done in the past and what they might do in the future. The 704 assessment documents use the word “possibly” 387 times, “unknown” 188 times and “deceptive” 85 times.
Viewed with judges’ rulings on legal challenges by detainees, the documents reveal that the analysts sometimes ignored serious flaws in the evidence — for example, that the information came from other detainees whose mental illness made them unreliable. Some assessments quote witnesses who say they saw a detainee at a camp run by Al Qaeda but omit the witnesses’ record of falsehood or misidentification. They include detainees’ admissions without acknowledging other government documents that show the statements were later withdrawn, often attributed to abusive treatment or torture.