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Guantanamo Documents Open Window to Secret World


Good morning. A British citizen says he was beaten during three years of detention in Afghanistan and Cuba. Today is Tuesday, March 7th, and this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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MONTAGNE: Moazzam Begg is the first Guantanamo prisoner to publish a book. The U.S. says there's no evidence to back up his allegations of abuse.

I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host: And I'm Steve Inskeep. In this hour, we'll hear what more detainees said. We'll report from the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base after the government-released prisoners own stories. We'll also examine proposals for tighter security at American ports.

Two foreign governments are tightening security to keep out ideas and in this hour, we'll meet two people whose journalism challenged the governments in Zimbabwe and China.

This day is the birthday of a practitioner of free speech: Wanda Sykes is 42.

Here's the news.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Pentagon's release of transcripts of enemy combatant hearings at Guantanamo, cracks open a window into the secretive process. The 5,000 pages offer unedited transcripts that include names or stories from some of the nearly 500 prisoners at the base. The documents were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act requested by the Associated Press.

NPR's National Security Correspondent Jackie Northam is in Guantanamo and joins us now.

Jackie, hello.


Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, one of the most intriguing aspects of this document is the voices of the detainees that emerge. You know, one saying that he was just a chicken farmer and another effectively saying he proudly was a combatant. You've covered about a half a dozen of these hearings, what have we learned from these documents? What's new?

NORTHAM: Well, really what it gives us, Renee, is a much broader sense of who has been held here for over three years now. As you say, you have the chicken farmer out here. You have people that say that they were handed in--they were rounded up in Afghanistan during the start of the war--and they were handed over by our allies at the start of the war--the Northern Alliance--for Bounties.

You have people that say, yes, we're a part of the Taliban, we were pressed into this, but only as a cook, only as a driver, that type of thing. Certainly, make no mistake, there are detainees--from the transcripts here--that definitely make it clear that the United States is the enemy in their eyes and that they will attack again, given the chance.

But really, what it does is a catalogue for us of most of the detainees, about 370 that we're seeing here. And before, we only really had a sense of people who were released that talked to the press briefly, or from the lawyers, over the past years, from some of these detainees. This is a much clearer sense of who the U.S. is holding down at Guantanamo.

MONTAGNE: And do we learn anything about the review process itself from these documents?

NORTHAM: What we really learned is that there are some holes in this system. As you said, I've sat in on a number of these--and in fact, I'm going to sit on another one tomorrow--and you watch the process unfold in court and it is flawed in many ways. For example, this is supposed to be their day in court, yet they have no legal representation. They don't have access to much of the material, the evidence against them, because it is classified. And a lot of the evidence is inconclusive.

And there's also problems, real problems, with getting things like witnesses to help bump up the detainees case. You know, in many ways or in many times, these are people who are in the backwaters of Afghanistan. And they can't, detainees obviously can't get to these people. And the ones I saw, there was a lack of willingness on the part of the military panel to go out and try to find these people--primarily, you know, probably for logistics.

So, what these transcripts show are really, again, just the problem with the whole process.

MONTAGNE: And would that be why the Pentagon tried to keep them out of the public eye for so long?

NORTHAM: Yes, it depends who you talk to. The Pentagon, the administration says, this is a privacy issue. These people have a right to privacy. And the irony here is, of course, Renee, that they don't have any other rights under the Geneva Convention. But privacy seems to be an issue.

So there's that, but you know, one could always also argue that this, what it does is it opens up the whole process down here. It shows what's happening down here. And again, when you look at these transcripts, there do seem to be real problems with the process itself. So that could be the reason why they tried to hold it back for so long.

MONTAGNE: Jackie, thanks very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Jackie Northam in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And you can read the Guantanamo detainee documents at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.