Shackled at the wrists and blinded by special goggles, the first captives from the U.S. war in Afghanistan were ushered to makeshift prison cells thousands of miles from the battle, at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, five years ago last week.
Gholam Ruhani was among them, the prison's third official inmate, flown in by cargo plane with the first group of 20 men. The 23-year-old Afghan shopkeeper, who spoke a little English, was seized near his hometown of Ghazni when he agreed to translate for a Taliban government official seeking a meeting with a U.S. soldier.
Ruhani is still at Guantanamo, marking the fifth anniversary of the prison and his own captivity. He remains as stunned about his fate, according to transcripts of his conversations with military officers, as he was when U.S. military police led him inside the razor wire on Jan. 11, 2002, and accused him of being America's enemy.
"I never had a war against the United States, and I am surprised I'm here," Ruhani told his captors during his first chance to hear the military's reasons for holding him, three years after he arrived at Guantanamo. "I tried to cooperate with Americans. I am no enemy of yours."
Now prison and prisoner are forever linked, joined by hasty decisions made in war and trapped by that fateful beginning.
Guantanamo, which is struggling to rid itself of roughly 200 of its 393 remaining detainees, served its original purpose of taking dozens of terrorism suspects and enemy fighters from the chaotic Afghan battlefield and elsewhere, administration officials and the prison's supporters say.
But after five years and more than $600 million, it has failed to quickly and fairly handle the cases of hundreds of people such as Ruhani, against whom the government has no clear evidence of a role in attacks against the United States, according to current and former government officials and attorneys for detainees.
In the administration's effort to obtain raw intelligence, officials said, it was easier to ship hundreds of men with unclear allegiances to a naval base in Cuba in early 2002 and ask the hard questions later. But with a government focused on interrogations, a bureaucracy lacking tolerance for risk and a detention policy under legal attack, the United States has found it difficult to free many of the detainees, regardless of the information it has on the threat they pose.
‘Snap judgments in the battlefield’
"We of course had to make snap judgments in the battlefield," said one administration official involved in reviewing Guantanamo cases, who spoke anonymously to avoid angering superiors. "Where we had problems was that once we had individuals in custody, no one along the layers of review wanted to take a risk. So they would take a shred of evidence that a detainee was associated with another bad person and say that's a reason to keep them."
That policy, and persistent reports of detainee abuse inside Guantanamo's walls, have provided rallying points for Islamic radicals, undermined international support for U.S. efforts to track down terrorists and ignited a legal effort that has repeatedly embarrassed the administration.
"Guantanamo took on a life of its own," said Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former U.S. ambassador at large for war crime issues. "What started as a solution to an immediate problem became both a more permanent place and a cause celebre internationally."
The White House and the Defense Department say the detention and interrogation facility they call Joint Task Force Guantanamo has been a success in protecting Americans and helping U.S. officials learn more about terrorist networks. Dangerous men are inside the prison, among them Khalid Sheik Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Ramzi Binalshibh, who is accused of aiding him. They were among 14 detainees transferred there last year as the administration sought, and later won, a law that restricts detainees from challenging their imprisonment in U.S. courts.
So far, 10 detainees have been designated to stand trial before special military commissions, and the Defense Department expects that 80 more will face a similar fate.
"In Guantanamo, we have held the engine of al-Qaeda -- the recruiters, smugglers, trainers, facilitators, financiers, bombmakers and potential suicide bombers -- detained and out of the fight," said Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler, a Defense Department spokesman. "We have no desire to be the world's jailer and do not hold detainees for any longer than necessary. We have in place a rigorous process to ensure those held at Guantanamo Bay belong at Guantanamo."
The prison has changed dramatically since its inception, after a battlefield crisis in north-central Afghanistan over Thanksgiving weekend in 2001. For four days, U.S. and British forces fought a prisoner uprising in a fortress used by the CIA as an interrogation site in Mazar-e Sharif. By Nov. 28, hundreds of prisoners were dead and the U.S. military had taken custody of an estimated 200 survivors and suspects.
Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, in charge of the assault on Afghanistan's al-Qaeda and Taliban strongholds, urged the military to find a site outside the country to hold and evaluate this expanding group of suspects. The job had also overwhelmed his detention facility, a converted machine shop at Bagram air base.
Back in Washington that December, someone floated an idea: What about taking the prisoners to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay? Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld liked it. By the next month, military cargo planes were bringing Muslim men seized in Afghanistan and Pakistan to Cuba, 20 and 30 at a time.
President Bush, relying on advisers' untested legal theories, declared a week after the prison opened that the captives were not entitled to Geneva Conventions protections or prisoner-of-war status and could be held in Cuba, without charges, indefinitely.
Between its opening and Feb. 14, 2002, the number of prisoners at Guantanamo swelled to 300. In late January of that year, Vice President Cheney said the detainees were "the worst of a very bad lot" and added: "They are very dangerous. They are devoted to killing millions of Americans."
But of the 773 detainees who have spent time in Guantanamo, the government has released roughly half, most because they had no information and no role in any fighting. The majority were sent home after the evidence against each was formally reviewed at military hearings required in 2004 by the Supreme Court, which rejected the Bush administration's claim that it could detain foreign nationals indefinitely without such sessions.
Of the 393 prisoners who remain today, the military has determined that 85 pose so little threat, they should be transferred to their home countries. Officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because some evidence about the prisoners is classified, estimate that about 200 pose a danger to Americans.
Trying to set the record straight
It is unknown what classified evidence exists to hold Ruhani, who said he was newly married and trying to help his elderly father run an electrical supply store when he was arrested on Dec. 9, 2001. The military tribunal that reviewed his case in 2004 publicly concluded that he was a danger because he was captured with a senior Taliban intelligence officer, was carrying rounds for his pistol and had worked as a part-time aide in a Taliban security office.
Ruhani told the three-officer tribunal that he had been waiting for three years to set the record straight, transcripts show. He contended that the Taliban required all young men to fight in its army but said he was able to avoid going to the front lines by agreeing to do menial cleaning and clerical jobs at a nearby police office.
"I was afraid I would be killed," he told them.
He had learned a little English to make some sense of the electronics manuals in his family's shop. And, he said, he was happy to help translate when asked by a fellow villager -- Abdul Haq Wasiq, a Taliban official who later became a prisoner with him at Guantanamo -- because he considered the Americans friendly. He said almost everyone in Afghanistan carries a weapon for protection but he handed his over to the Americans as he entered the meeting.
"I believed I was on the Americans' side. I expected to leave that meeting and return to my life, my shop and my family. Instead, I was arrested," he said, adding: "All I want to say is that I am not guilty. I am asking for your help."
The military decided to continue holding Ruhani. At a review hearing the next year, he seemed bewildered that the Americans had not yet determined that his detention was a mistake.
"If there is a misunderstanding, please don't hold that against me," Ruhani said. "When will they let me know that I'll be released?"
One major obstacle for Ruhani and dozens of others still at the prison is nationality. The U.S. government has determined that Afghanistan, and a few other countries, cannot keep track of released detainees who the United States believes are low-risk but need monitoring.
Afghans make up the largest group of current detainees. Yemenis and Saudis, whose countries either cannot handle released detainees or do not want them, also remain in large numbers.
‘Gitmo blew our credibility’
The detainees in that first group of 20 are emblematic of Guantanamo's prisoners. Half have been released. Of the remaining 10, one is David Hicks -- prisoner No. 2 -- an Australian who fought in the Kosovo Liberation Army, then converted to Islam and was captured in Afghanistan. Two are admitted Taliban commanders.
Three others are more like Ruhani, with public files that appear to make them unlikely enemies of the United States.
One is Shakhrukh Hamiduva, an 18-year-old Uzbek refugee who fled his country after the government there killed one of his uncles and jailed other relatives. He tried to cross the border from Afghanistan when U.S. bombs started falling but was captured by a tribal leader and sold to U.S. forces for a bounty. He said soldiers told him he would be released, but instead he ended up in Cuba.
"We went after small fries at every turn," said Neal Katyal, a Georgetown University law professor who helped argue the Supreme Court case last June that struck down the government's original plan for military trials. "Gitmo blew our credibility. And it's going to take a long time to get it back."