Penny Lane: Are Guantanamo Detainees Really the “Worst of the Worst?”

In 2002, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that GTMO was populated by the “worst of the worst,” citing GTMO detainees as some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. The Center for Policy and Research, however, published a report in March 2011, citing substantial evidence regarding the true recidivist rates of GTMO detainees pointing to the fact that these men were not nearly as dangerous as the U.S. originally claimed.

Last week, Politico published a story via Associated Press entitled Penny Lane: Guantanamo Bay’s other secret CIA Facility, in which the Associated Press explored a highly secret post-9/11 program in which the CIA turned a select group of GTMO detainees into double agents, who were then sent to their home countries to assist the United States in tracking down and killing terrorists. The secret program was a highly risky endeavor for the U.S., and despite the fact that it was over by 2006, it is still classified. Former operatives are still forbidden from speaking about their involvement in the program. Politico succinctly sums up the risks of this operation when it says, “At the same time the government used the risk of terrorism to justify imprisoning people indefinitely, it was releasing dangerous people from prison to work for the CIA.”

The existence of this program bolsters the Center’s 2011 contention that the men held at the GTMO facility were not nearly as dangerous as the U.S. originally claimed. If the government felt confident enough to put these men on payroll and hire them as double agents, sending them back into the field to reconnect with terrorists, could they really have posed as substantial a threat as the government originally claimed?

This program, referred to by the CIA as “Penny Lane,” was carried out in Cuba, in eight small cottages just a few hundred yards away from the administrative offices of Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. The cottages, set up like hotel rooms, were used by the CIA as a headquarters of sorts to evaluate dozens of GTMO detainees, of which a handful ultimately turned into spies and signed agreements to work for the CIA.

What made a detainee a good candidate to work as a spy with the CIA? A strong candidate for the Penny Lane program needed “legitimate terrorist connections”- they needed to be able to re-connect with al-Qaida once they were returned to their home countries.

A variety of incentives were provided for participation in the program; first and foremost, the opportunity to leave GTMO and return to the detainee’s home country. Politico says, “Some received assurances that the U.S. would resettle their families. Another thought al-Qaida had perverted Islam and believed it was his duty as a Muslim to help the CIA destroy it. One detainee agreed to cooperate after the CIA insinuated it would harm his children, a former official said, similar to the threats interrogators had made to admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. All were promised money, although exact amounts are still unclear. But altogether, the government paid millions of dollars for their services, officials said. The money came from a secret CIA account, codenamed Pledge, that’s used to pay informants, officials said.”

The CIA had high hopes for the Penny Lane program, at one point hoping to release two Pakistani men into the United States on student or work visas, hoping to have them connect with a U.S. al-Qaida cell (which, while discussed in detail, never actually occurred).

The official reason for abandoning Penny Lane has not been released (nor has the government officially acknowledged the program). However, officials speaking on the condition of anonymity have confirmed that the program ended in 2006.

While this program is fascinating on a multitude of levels, perhaps most interesting is the fact that Penny Lane’s very existence causes us to question the U.S.’s sincerity when it has expressed (on multiple occasions, no less) concern that released GTMO detainees will “return to the fight” and commit recidivist acts against the U.S. 

From Guantanamo’s inception, U.S. officials have maintained that the detainees incarcerated at the facility are “high-value detainees,” and “the worst of the worst.” The government has also claimed that, upon release from GTMO, many of these detainees have “reengaged” in terrorist activities. Since the government began publishing estimated recidivist rates several years ago, the recidivism rate of released detainees has been published at between 25% and 30%. Why, then, if the recidivism rate is so high, would the government voluntarily release what it believes to be the worst of these highly dangerous men (those with the closest ties to terrorist organizations), and pay them to return to the fight? While it is understandably a means to the ultimate goal of breaking down these terrorist organizations and undermining their power, it seems like a substantial risk to take, especially given the potential dangers associated with releasing these men back to their home countries and encouraging them to reconnect with the most dangerous terrorists in the world.

In our report, the Center cited a 2003 quote from Donald Rumsfeld which directly conflicts with his  statement a year earlier referring to the men held at GMTO as “the worst of the worst.” He said,

We need to stop populating Guantanamo Bay (“GTMO”) with low-level enemy combatants. GTMO needs to serve as an [REDACTED] not a prison for Afghanistan.

Ultimately, the existence of the Penny Lane program supports the Center’s contention that this “worst of the worst” designation was simply a characterization driven by fear, and there was never a legitimate body of information to substantiate the assertion that the men at GTMO truly were as violent and dangerous as the government claimed. In fact, true recidivism rates are almost certainly far lower than the government has continuously suggested. If recidivism rates were as high as the government claims; would they really have felt comfortable investing millions of dollars in the Penny Lane program?

Kelly Ann Taddonio, Senior Research Fellow
Seton Hall Center for Policy & Research

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