The McClatchy newspaper chain recently published a five-part series detailing the U.S.'s treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan. The series was the culmination of an eight-month investigation, during which McClatchy interviewed 66 former detainees, few of whom had talked before with reporters. We spoke to Tom Lasseter, the lead reporter on the story (and now McClatchy's Moscow bureau chief), about what he found, what surprised him, and why both the left and right's visions of Gitmo are off-base.
Note: This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Give me a sense of why you decided to do the project. In particular the timing of it, given that things are winding down now with the administration.
I had just gotten out of a trip from Iraq and my editor called and asked if I would interview -- or try to interview -- some former Guantanamo Bay detainees. I said yes and we went from there.
I went to Jordan and started looking for these guys. As we built more interviews on top of each other, and looked at transcripts of hearings, the picture just started to emerge.
What picture emerged?
That there was a question about what sort of intelligence these guys would be in a position to offer. There was also a question of how much intelligence they would be willing to offer given the treatment they described.
It also emerged that these guys were not alleging the sort of physical mistreatment at Guantanamo that is popularly thought to have happened there. They were much more likely to talk about [abuse in] Afghanistan, in particular Bagram air base and Kanadhar airfield.
We started with two very simple questions and they basically built on top of each other.
What were the two simple questions?
The questions were: Who were the guys who had been held at Guantanamo, and what had happened at Guantanamo.
When we got to Afghanistan, it became very apparent early on that the Afghans in particular were more likely to have been guys who either were connected at the very lowest of levels to militant groups or were not connected at all. These guys were very different from the Arab [detainees].
And we went from country to country. It just became clear that the different countries had different sorts of former detainees and whose probability to give useful intelligence really varied pretty widely.
And then from there, I went back to the States and interviewed former guards at Bagram, I spoke with former intelligence and defense officials, tried to talk with current defense and administration officials. And at the same time was doing a series of FOIAs for cases coming out of Bagram.
What were you the most surprised to learn?
If you had asked me what my assumption was about Afghan detainees held at Gitmo, I would have assumed more of them would have had connections to militants than I found. This is not just sitting down and listening to their stories. It was talking to a lot of Afghan security, intelligence and political officials. These are men who are allies of the United States.
I want to emphasize that. It wasn't just that I sat down with some detainees and this is what they had to say. And also I looked at transcripts from tribunals. And sometimes the cases at least in the unclassified portions that were available to us were pretty weak.
What about impediments to your reporting?
Almost every step along the way, no one really wanted to talk to me. The former detainees, it was very difficult to get them to talk with us, Afghan officials didn't often want to talk, former U.S. officials often didn't want to talk, current U.S. officials didn't want to talk.
Why didn't detainees want to talk?
It depended on where we were. In a place like Russia or Pakistan, they were concerned they would get called into state security offices. In a place like Afghanistan, there was a lot of concern about who I really was. Was I really reporter or a Western intelligence guy?
And a lot of them on a very basic level just didn't want to talk about what happened to them. These were very long interviews that would last a day, or stretch into a second day at times. And they just did not want to go through their experience again during the interview with me.
I'd try to parse out all the details: who was around them, what was happening, what did it look like. They would not infrequently just stop the interview and say they didn't want to talk about it anymore. Sometimes they would get very angry, sometimes they would get very sad. Sometimes guys would hold their faces in their hands, in a few cases they'd rock back and forth.
And the collective takeaway?
I was very struck that they often talked about Gitmo as a place where they were not physically abused. They described the violence there as much more of jailhouse violence that took place between prisoners and guards. This wasn't abuse taking place in an interrogation room. This wasn't a place where sadistic violence was taking place as often as portrayed. The dynamic was far more jailhouse violence back-and-forth in which the prisoners were often aggressors.
The violence in Afghanistan at Bagram was just completely different. They talked about being punched and shoved and hung by their wrists. They all pointed to Bagram as a very bad place.
How do you feel about the response to your series?
We got a fair amount of media reaction -- we had some interviews on NPR and CNN -- but we didn't get a reaction from the administration or Defense Department. In terms of what has this project accomplished, I guess I don't have an answer for that. You go out and report the stories and then you write them.