Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

Moment that mattered: The USA’s secret Guantánamo files are leaked Seán Clarke

US Department of Defence handout photo of US Army Military Police escorting a Al Quaeda detainee to his cell in Camp X-Ray at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing to the temporary detention facility on Jan. 11, 2002.

“At about 1am London time on Easter Sunday, or 8pm in Washington and New York, news started to break of the release of another batch of leaked secret US documents. This time the files related to the more than 700 men who had been or were still being detained at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba by the United States. I was asleep, expecting the release to come a few hours later. I had been working most of the previous week and weekend on constructing a database of key facts about the detainees for The Guardian.

As the small team of which I was part read through all 779 files, the most striking thing for me was the number – small, admittedly – which recorded, quite straightforwardly, that no reason was available for the detainees’ transfer to Guantánamo. Forget unproved allegations, forget mere suspicions; some of these men were there for no reason at all, except possibly the ill will of a Pakistani border policeman. And worse, their captors knew it.

Even some of the detentions made with good intentions turned out to be misguided. One man was questioned about his known contacts in Islamist terror circles; did this not prove that he too was implicated? He protested that his contacts were necessary to his work as an author. After a short bibliographical interval, his captors discovered that he had indeed published a book: one that set out to demonstrate the evils of Islamist terror. Oh.

“Forget unproved allegations, forget mere suspicions; some of these men were there for no reason at all”

In distressingly many cases, Afghans who desired only to be left alone reported how they were conscripted into Taliban armed forces (in one case as punishment for the sins of low-level dope consumption and some premarital sex), often as drivers or cooks, and later captured by the US. The files show that in many cases the Americans accepted that the inmate had no ideological link to the Taliban, but record explicitly that the ‘reasons for continued detention in Guantánamo’ were to provide information on conscription techniques, or for their knowledge of transport links near the battle areas. More than one ‘reason for continued detention’ was given as ‘knowledge of Taliban prisons’ and at least one as ‘knowledge of Iranian prisons’.

Imagine your delight at being sprung from Taliban prison by your American liberators, only to find that your liberators then bundle you on to a plane and maintain you indefinitely at their expense in a tropical island paradise with orange jumpsuits and a large number of your former captors.

Many of the inmates were picked up in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions in late 2001 if they were found to be attempting to cross the border informally and if the Americans or Pakistanis had any reason to believe they might be combatants – as many people at the time were. One of the chief clues, highlighted as revealing in briefings to US interrogators, and faithfully recorded in the personal files of the detainees wherever pertinent, was possession of an F91W Casio watch (retail value about £7). As these watches were apparently distributed to the faithful at Al Qaida training camps, they came for the Americans and Pakistanis to be tantamount to a membership card for Al Qaida.

‘Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Nazi party? Have you come to the United States to commit genocide? And do you tell the time using a specific model of widely available digital watch?’

But we shouldn’t forget that many of the files were prepared as a recommendation for the detainees’ transfer away from Guantánamo. Transfer was not always an unalloyed good. Although the Chinese and Yemenis have not been sent home, at least one inmate was ‘transferred’ to his home country where he later died an early death; that destination was Libya, back in the times before Nato was bombing it daily. Most others who were ‘transferred’ were sent to another country for continued detention, and not often with the expectation that in the other country they would receive the legal process they had been denied in the Caribbean.

In any event, three considerations, for the gaolers, weighed upon this decision: whether the man was likely to pose a threat to American interests if released; whether he was likely to be of ‘intelligence value’ if detained; and whether he was dangerous or bothersome to detain.

The last of these, understandably enough, carried the least weight in the decision-making process, but by being recorded sheds some curious light. Many (but on balance fewer than you might imagine) of the inmates are recorded as disobeying the guards. A number, again not huge, are said to have regularly threatened or insulted the guards or to have exposed themselves. More surprising is the number who are said to have few or no disciplinary events in their records and who the reports believe hold no ill will toward America or its interests.

Imagine you get up to go to work tomorrow, and on your way to the station a group of Afghans bundle you into a plane, take you to Indonesia and keep you there without explanation – to you or your family – for several years. Do you think you might come to bear them at least some ill will? The surprise for me about Guantánamo is not how many devils it contained (about 150, since you ask), but how many saints.”

Seán Clarke is an executive producer at

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme