Thanks to President Bush’s announcement on Wednesday, we now know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and thirteen other serious terror suspects have been transferred to Guantanamo Bay. But what about the other 400 or so prisoners who have been in the detention facility there now for up to five years? Who are they, and how dangerous are they? This is a question that only a few journalists have pursued since 2001. The answers they uncovered are astounding, yet despite the efforts of these reporters the predicament of the detainees has still not been fully exposed.


In the spring of 2002, Roy Gutman, then a reporter for Newsweek, learned that a few Kuwaiti families had hired lawyers for their kin being held at Guantanamo. “I made a beeline” for the lawyers, says Gutman, now the foreign editor of Newsday. He wanted to test the U.S. government’s claims about the detainees. Gutman told Tom Wilner, the Kuwaitis’ lead lawyer, that he “wanted access to all his files.” Wilner complied. “He left me in his office,” says Gutman, “and I worked until about 11 p.m. I left via the emergency exit.”


Such skepticism about the government’s claims would prove to be well-founded — and quite rare. Until recently, reporters have seldom sought to test the Bush administration’s contention that, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put in early 2002, the Guantanamo detainees were “the worst of the worst,” and “among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.”


The government would be hard-pressed to prove such characterizations. Indeed, as the New York Times reported after the Abu Ghraib photos of abuse had turned detainee treatment into a big story, a CIA report had concluded in summer 2002 that the majority of Guantanamo detainees probably didn’t deserve to be there. How, then, did so many noncombatants end up at Guantanamo?


After the Taliban fell in November 2001, the U.S. military moved to set up what are known as Article 5 hearings. Mandated by the Geneva Conventions, the hearings are meant to cull from the ranks of captured personnel any noncombatants swept up by mistake. For the military, the hearings were standard operating procedure. It held them during the first gulf war, as it has done during every war since the late 1940s, when the Geneva Conventions were adopted.


But President Bush took a different tack. As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer recently noted, in January 2002 Bush declared that al Qaeda and Taliban suspects were a new kind of enemy, and he reversed the military’s order for Article 5 hearings by issuing an executive order establishing that all detainees in U.S. custody in Afghanistan were in one way or another associated with al Qaeda or the Taliban, and thus “enemy combatants.” The executive order also declared that detained al Qaeda suspects weren’t covered by any aspect of the Geneva Conventions.


“They missed the first screening process,” says Mayer. “They actually stood it down. I look back and think that was the beginning of this huge mess.”


The change in the detainees’ status wasn’t noticed by the press at the time, but in the July 8, 2002, edition of Newsweek, Gutman and his colleagues detailed what turned out to be some of its after-effects.


With the key help of an Afghan stringer named Sami Yousafzai, Newsweek retraced the paths traveled by a handful of Kuwaiti detainees now at Guantanamo. (The magazine didn’t name all the men, but at least one of them has been released while others are still at Guantanamo.) It found witnesses in Afghanistan supporting the claim that the men were indeed aid workers who, as was the case for many detainees, had been captured and sold for bounty by tribal leaders, and who, after successive rounds of selling, had ended up in U.S. custody.


Besides discovering that some of the prisoners at Guantanamo appeared to be innocent of any involvement in combat or terrorist activity, Gutman also found that the Pentagon wasn’t planning to investigate the detainees’ stories. Asked why not, a Pentagon official told Newsweek, “Your question suggests that there is something akin to a criminal investigation at work. That is not what we’re doing.”

Eric Umansky is an assistant managing editor of ProPublica.