WASHINGTON — Had a majority of the men imprisoned at Guantanamo after 2002 attacked the United States or American troops?
It depends on whom you ask.
A study published by a professor at the Seton Hall School of Law found that 45 percent of 516 Guantanamo detainees examined had committed hostile acts against the United States or its allies, and that only 8 percent of them had been al Qaida fighters. The study drew on unclassified Department of Defense transcripts and documents from military tribunals at Guantanamo.
West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, however, working from the same set of unclassified documents, found that while the tribunals determined that 56 percent of the men had committed or supported hostile acts — such as direct combat, manning the front lines or planning combat operations — 73 percent of them posed a "demonstrated threat."
Seton Hall is an independent Roman Catholic university in New Jersey, and a professor who represented two Guantanamo detainees co-authored its study in 2006. West Point is the U.S. military academy, where many top Army officers receive their university educations.
So who got it right?
It's not possible to say definitively. However, a McClatchy investigation came to conclusions similar to the Seton Hall study, and West Point's statistical breakdown, under close examination, helps explain how Guantanamo's cellblocks became filled with innocents and low-level Taliban grunts.
West Point included in its "demonstrated threat" category anyone who'd committed hostile acts; been identified as a fighter; received training at a camp run by al Qaida, the Taliban or associated forces; or received training in combat weapons other than rifles or other small arms.
Of the 291 men included in the West Point study's hostile acts subgroup, 104 — more than a third — were those who reportedly manned the front lines. However, as the United States and its Afghan allies advanced in northern Afghanistan late in 2001, the front lines were manned by conscripts, young volunteers from Pakistan or low-ranking Taliban fighters. Top al Qaida and Taliban leaders already had fled.
The system of identifying men as fighters, a second subgroup, depended on the accounts of the men who initially detained the "fighters," often Afghan commanders looking for bounties from U.S. forces who paid more for men alleged to be Taliban or al Qaida leaders.
According to the Seton Hall study, in cases where the identities of the captors were known, only 8 percent of the Guantanamo detainees were captured by U.S. forces; 86 percent were turned over to U.S. custody either by Pakistan or by the northern alliance, a coalition led by anti-Taliban commanders who came to power after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The same bounty hunters often were the source of allegations about training in al Qaida and Taliban camps, the Seton Hall study said. While some camps were dens of dangerous radicals, others taught little more than how to use an AK-47, a skill known to many Afghan boys.