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Originally published January 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 26, 2009 at 8:32 AM

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New team finds Gitmo files on detainees in disarray

President Obama's plans to expeditiously determine the fate of about 245 terrorism suspects held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and quickly close the military prison there were set back last week when incoming legal and national-security officials — barred until the inauguration from examining classified material on the detainees — discovered that there were no comprehensive case files on many of them.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Obama's plans to expeditiously determine the fate of about 245 terrorism suspects held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and quickly close the military prison there were set back last week when incoming legal and national-security officials — barred until the inauguration from examining classified material on the detainees — discovered that there were no comprehensive case files on many of them.

Instead, they found that information on individual prisoners is "scattered throughout the executive branch," a senior administration official said.

The executive order Obama signed Thursday orders the prison closed within one year, and a Cabinet-level panel named to review each case separately will have to spend its initial weeks and perhaps months scouring the corners of the federal government in search of relevant material.

Several former Bush administration officials agreed the files are incomplete and no single government entity was charged with pulling together the facts and the range of options for each prisoner. They said the CIA and other intelligence agencies were reluctant to share information, and the White House's focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority.

But other former officials took issue and suggested the new team has begun to appreciate the complexity and dangers of the issue and is looking for excuses.

After promising quick solutions, one former senior official said, the Obama administration is now "backpedaling and trying to buy time" by blaming its predecessor. Unless political appointees decide to overrule the recommendations of the career bureaucrats handling the issue under both administrations, he predicted, the new review will reach the same conclusions as the last: that most detainees can be neither freed nor easily tried in this country.

"All but about 60 who have been approved for release" — assuming countries can be found to accept them — "are either high-level al-Qaida people responsible for 9/11 or bombings, or were high-level Taliban or al-Qaida facilitators or money people," the former official said.

Charles "Cully" Stimson, who served as deputy assistant defense secretary for detainee affairs in 2006-2007, said he had persistent problems in attempts to assemble all information on individual cases. Threats to recommend release or transfer of a detainee were often required, he said, to persuade the CIA to "cough up a sentence or two."

A second former Pentagon official said most individual files are heavily summarized dossiers that do not contain the kind of background and investigative work that would be put together by a federal prosecution team. He described "regular food fights" among different parts of the government over information-sharing on the detainees.

While denying problems, one intelligence official said the Defense Department was far more likely to be responsible for any information lapses, because it had initially detained and interrogated most of the prisoners and was in charge of them at the prison.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the Defense Department would cooperate, and he noted that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is co-chairman of the review panel.

"Fundamentally, we believe that the individual files on each detainee are comprehensive and sufficiently organized," Morrell said. He added that "in many cases, there will be thousands of pages of documents ... which makes a comprehensive assessment a time-consuming endeavor."

"Not all the documents are physically located in one place," Morrell said, but most are available through a database.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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