Torture Hits Home
Page 2 of 4

Exclusive: Inside Gitmo with Detainee 061

Shortly after German-born Murat Kurnaz arrived at Camp Delta, intelligence reports show the plan was to let him go. What happened?

| Mon Mar. 10, 2008 12:00 AM PDT

ON DECEMBER 1, 2001, Kurnaz boarded a bus to the airport in Peshawar, a smoggy city on the country's northwest border, where he says he planned to catch a plane back to Germany. Along the way, the vehicle was stopped at a routine checkpoint. One of the officers manning it knocked on the window and asked Kurnaz something in Urdu, then ordered him to step off the bus.

Kurnaz expected to show his passport and answer a few questions before being sent on his way. Instead, he was thrown in jail. A few days later, Pakistani police turned him over to U.S. forces, who transported him to Kandahar Air Base, a military installation in the southern reaches of Afghanistan. The Taliban had recently been driven from the region, and the base, built on the rubble of a bombed-out airport, was little more than a cluster of bullet-pocked hangars and decrepit runways. Despite the subzero temperatures, prisoners were kept in large outdoor pens, and a number of them later claimed they were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics. Kurnaz says he was routinely beaten, chained up for days in painful positions, and given electric shocks on the soles of his feet. He also says he was subjected to a crude form of waterboarding, which involved having his head plunged into a water-filled plastic bucket. (The Pentagon, contacted more than a dozen times by email and telephone, would not comment on Kurnaz's treatment or any other aspect of his case.)

One morning about two months after his arrival in Afghanistan, the detainee was roused before dawn and issued an orange jumpsuit. Then guards shackled and blindfolded him and covered his ears with soundproof earphones before herding him onto a military transport plane.

When the plane touched down more than 20 hours later, Kurnaz was led into a tent where soldiers plucked hairs from his arms, swabbed the inside of his mouth, and gave him a green plastic bracelet with number that would come to define him: 061. Finally, he was led to a crude cell block with concrete floors, a corrugated metal roof, and chain-link walls, which looked out on a sandy desert landscape. Inside his cell, he found a blanket and a thin green mat, a pair of flip-flops, and two translucent buckets, one to be used as a toilet and the other as a sink. He had no idea where he was.

Kurnaz later learned that he landed at Camp X-Ray, a temporary holding pen used to house Guantanamo detainees during the four months when the main prison camp was being built. Even before construction was done, Pentagon officials began to suspect that Kurnaz didn't belong there. On February 24, 2002, just three weeks after his arrival, a senior military interrogator issued a memo saying, "This source may actually have no al-Qaida or Taliban association."

IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2002, the three German agents arrived at Guantanamo to interrogate detainee 061. During the trip, they were assigned a CIA liaison, identified only as Steve H., who briefed them on their mission and kept tabs on the interrogations.

Much of the questioning the first day focused on why Kurnaz would choose to travel to Pakistan when war was brewing in the region. The detainee explained that a group of Muslim missionaries had visited his mosque and told him about a school in Lahore where he could study the Koran. But when he arrived there, he found people were suspicious of him because of his light skin and the fact that he spoke no Arabic. Taking him for a foreign journalist, the school turned him away. So he wandered around, staying in mosques and guesthouses, until he was detained near Peshawar (something he also attributed to his light skin and the fact that he spoke German but carried a Turkish passport).

The German agents came away with mixed opinions, according to testimony they later gave before a closed session of German Parliament. (Many other details of their trip were also revealed through that hearing, transcripts of which were obtained by Mother Jones.) The leader of the delegation, who worked for the foreign intelligence service, the BND, saw Kurnaz as a harmless and somewhat naive young man who simply picked a bad time to travel. One of his colleagues, a domestic intelligence specialist, argued it was possible that Kurnaz was on the path to radicalization. But everyone agreed it was highly improbable that he had links to terrorist networks or was involved in any kind of terrorist plot, and none of the agents voiced any objections to letting him go.

Given this fact, Steve H. proposed releasing Kurnaz and using him as a spy, part of a joint operation to infiltrate the Islamist scene in Germany. The German agents apparently took this suggestion to heart, because on day two of their visit, they arrived at the interrogation trailer bearing a chocolate bar and a motorcycle magazine, and asked the detainee point-blank whether he would consider working as an informant. He agreed. (Kurnaz later claimed that he had no intention of actually spying—that, in fact, he would "rather starve to death"—but thought feigning interest might hasten his release.)

That evening, the agents were invited to dinner with the deputy commander of the prison camp. The leader of the delegation later testified that he discussed Kurnaz's case with him, and according to an investigation by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, after the meal, the American official sent a coded message to the Pentagon. A few days later, on September 30, the release form for Kurnaz was printed out. The cover memo, obtained by Mother Jones, notes that Pentagon investigators had found "no definite link/evidence of detainee having an association with al-Qaida or making any specific threat toward the U.S." and that "the Germans confirmed that this detainee has no connection to an al-Qaida cell in Germany."

AROUND THE SAME TIME, in October 2002, German police suspended their investigation into Kurnaz and his fellow suspects. No evidence of criminal wrongdoing ever surfaced. "We tapped telephones, we searched apartments, we questioned a large number of witnesses," Uwe Picard, the Bremen attorney general who led the probe, told me when we spoke in his office, an attic warren stacked waist-deep in files. "We didn't find anything of substance."

But police did turn up some troubling bits of hearsay. One of the students at a shipbuilding school Kurnaz attended told investigators that Kurnaz had "Taliban" written on the screen of his cell phone. Then there were the comments of Kurnaz's mother, who, when questioned by police days after her son's disappearance, fretted that he had "bought heavy boots and two pairs of binoculars" shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Seizing on these details, the German media dubbed Kurnaz the "Bremen Taliban." This was clearly unsettling to German officials, who just one year after the 9/11 attacks were still reeling from the revelation that three hijackers lived and studied in Germany without ever catching the attention of police or intelligence agencies. Many politicians had serious qualms about letting the German Turk back into the country.

The first sign of these doubts came in the form of a classified report on the Guantanamo visit, which was issued on October 8, 2002, and circulated through the top ranks of the German government. It argues that releasing Kurnaz and using him as a spy would be "problematic," in that he had "no access to the Mujahideen milieu." It also notes, "In light of Kurnaz's possibly imminent release, we should determine whether Germany wants the Turkish citizen back and, given the expected media attention, whether Germany wants to document that everything possible was done to prevent his return."

Three weeks later, Kurnaz's case was discussed at the presidential round, a standing Tuesday meeting held at the Germany Chancellery and attended by top officials from the foreign and interior ministries as well as the German security services. The group decided to block his return, and on October 30 the interior ministry issued a secret memo with a plan for keeping him out of the country, which involved revoking his residency permit on the grounds that he had been abroad for more than six months. Germany's domestic intelligence agency later notified the CIA in writing of the government's "express wish" that Kurnaz "not return to Germany."

Page 2 of 4
Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.