Last week, an item I posted here so intrigued Ron Brynaert, the executive editor at The Raw Story, that he spent the better part of a day tracking down references to the "worst of the worst" quote in an effort to find out who originally said it about detainees at Guantanamo.
As you may recall, my post was triggered by a phone inquiry from Donald Rumsfeld's office to Carol Rosenberg, who's covered Guantanamo from the beginning. Rumsfeld's office wanted to know when the then Secretary of Defense, who's widely credited with coining the phrase, had spoken those words; Rumsfeld's staff had yet to find it in any transcript. Rosenberg told the caller that she didn't think Rumsfeld had ever said it; she credits the phrase to Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who was the Guantanamo detention center commander when the first prisoners arrived on Jan. 11, 2002.
In an e-mail message to me, Brynaert said that the first published reference he could find to the words was in fact a Rosenberg story attributing them to "the Marine commander." That story ran on Jan. 20, 2002. (The back story here: Rosenberg recorded the phrase and Lehnert attribution in her notes on the arrival of the first prisoners, but didn't use them in her first story because, she said, it didn't seem like a particularly insightful comment and she had much to say in limited space.)
The next reference Brynaert found was a Jan. 23, 2002, transcript of a White House press briefing in which spokesman Ari Fleischer, in response to a question about the prisoners, said, "These are not mere innocents, these are among the worst of the worst." That story was followed five days later by an American Forces Press Service story, published on the Pentagon's Web site Jan. 28, 2002. That story has the words coming from Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, who at the time was the Pentagon's primary briefer on operations in Afghanistan. "They are bad guys," the story quoted Stufflebeem as saying, referring to prisoners in both Afghanistan and Guantanamo. "They are the worst of the worst, and if let out on the street, they will go back to the proclivity of trying to kill Americans and others."
So when does Rumsfeld come into the picture? According to Brynaert's research, not until Oct. 23, 2002, in a New York Times story that claims Rumsfeld used the phrase "earlier this year." When precisely isn't said. Brynaert suggests that Rumsfeld "most probably used it off the record at some point." Maybe, but I'm betting not. As his staff apparently has discovered, Rumsfeld never actually uttered the phrase.
Does it matter? As Brynaert noted in his e-mail to me, "since Cheney used it the other month and other Bush officials and Pentagon officials have used it since, it appears to be a talking point." Clearly. But it's such a touchstone quote, wouldn't it be good for history to know its origin?
And it wasn't a very accurate observation. As Rosenberg pointed out in a story she did Jan. 17, 2008, of the 20 prisoners who arrived aboard the first flight to Guantanamo, prompting Lehnert's description, only one has been charged with a war crime -- the Australian David Hicks, who's served his time and is at home in Australia. Six others were released or transferred out of the prison; 12 others, as far as is known, remain at Guantanamo, but uncharged. As for No. 20, Rosenberg's never been able to figure out who he was, amid suggestions that he might have been an informant, aboard the flight to spy on the other 19.