EDITORIAL - Gitmo's innocents: A retired colonel charges improper detentions

Written by Susan Mannella on .

It appears that in the early days of the Afghanistan conflict, U.S. forces weren't careful about distinguishing enemies from noncombatants, according to Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the former chief of staff of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

So-called enemy combatants were rounded up and taken to Guantanamo, regardless of the strength of the evidence against them. In most cases, the evidence of guilt boiled down simply to being in the area when Americans swept through.

"There are still innocent people there," Mr. Wilkerson said last week, referring to prisoners who continue to be held at the U.S. base at Guantanamo. "Some have been there six or seven years." He said the United States quickly realized it had detained innocent men, but kept them in custody because it was believed they could provide intelligence about the region and the Taliban.

If Mr. Wilkerson is correct, then the Bush administration's handling of the prisoners is an even bigger disgrace than previously known. Mr. Wilkerson, a Republican and a retired Army colonel, believes that separating combatants from sheepherders wasn't a priority for the United States in Afghanistan.

Spokesmen for the military said it stands by its story that only enemy combatants who were a threat to the United States have been held at Guantanamo. Mr. Wilkerson's account is more credible, however. His charges are based on official briefings and conversations with military commanders.

One day, those improperly detained at Guantanamo will tell their stories -- and the United States will have a lot of explaining to do.


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