Following Wikileaks’ release of 251,287 US diplomatic cables, which has, if nothing else, revealed that secrecy and the Internet appear to be mutually incompatible, a handful of media outlets immediately picked up on references to Guantánamo — and the Obama administration’s negotiations with other countries — in the cables.
Britain’s Daily Mail led the way, claiming that the cables revealed that the Obama administration “played a high stakes game of ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ with foreign governments,” as it tried to secure new homes for prisoners who could not be repatriated because of fears that they would be tortured or otherwise ill-treated in their home countries.
The Mail stated that Slovenia was “told that if it wanted a meeting with the president, it would have to accept a prisoner,” that “the island nation of Kiribati [in the central Pacific] was offered incentives worth millions of dollars to take in Chinese Muslim detainees” (the Uighurs, the most high-profile cleared detainees in the prison), and that Belgium was told that “accepting more prisoners would be a ‘low-cost way’ to ‘attain prominence in Europe.’”
In addition, the Guardian posted a cable detailing discussions in March 2009 between John Brennan, President Obama’s principal counter-terrorism adviser, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Most notable for the King’s fiery, warmongering rhetoric about Iran, the meeting also involved Brennan giving the King “a letter from President Obama expressing a personal message of friendship, appreciation for our close and collaborative relationship and concern over the disposition of Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo” — 99 in total, at the time of Brennan’s visit.
Following discussions about the Yemenis, the cable noted:
“I’ve just thought of something,” the King added, and proposed implanting detainees with an electronic chip containing information about them and allowing their movements to be tracked with Bluetooth. This was done with horses and falcons, the King said. Brennan replied, “horses don’t have good lawyers,” and that such a proposal would face legal hurdles in the US, but agreed that keeping track of detainees was an extremely important issue that he would review with appropriate officials when he returned to the United States.
Elsewhere, the Washington Post noted that, “During a meeting between US and Chinese ambassadors in Kyrgyzstan in early 2009, the Chinese diplomat said it was a “slap in the face” that the United States was not returning Chinese Uighur detainees to their homeland but was instead planning to resettle them in Germany,” which never happened.
The problem with all these stories is that they reveal nothing that was not already known, and, moreover, skip over the uncomfortable truth that, when it comes to closing Guantánamo and dealing with the prisoners still held there, every problem that America encounters is of its own making.
No one should be surprised that a certain amount of horse-trading, arm-twisting and envelopes stuffed full of cash were involved in relocating former Guantánamo prisoners to the majority of the 16 countries in which those who could not safely be repatriated were given new homes. With a few exceptions, the countries that took prisoners very obviously sought money and/or influence.
Belgium was not particularly prominent in this list — although the country did indeed take a prisoner in October 2009 — any more than were Ireland, Portugal and Spain (and Portugal’s former colony Cape Verde), which have all taken former prisoners, but from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union countries were almost queuing up for favors: in Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia. Noticeably, however, Slovenia, despite the mention in the Wikileaks documents, obviously thought twice about the importance it attached to securing a personal audience with President Obama, as it has not taken in a single former Guantánamo prisoner, and nor has Kiribati, despite the offer of millions of dollars.
Outside of the middle and lower rungs of the pecking order, France, which took two Algerians in 2009, and Germany, which made up for turning down the Uighurs, taking a stateless Palestinian and a Syrian in September this year, had less to gain, except, perhaps, for making their neighbors look less generous, and Switzerland picked up where Germany left off by taking two Uighurs in March this year, risking the wrath of China that its northern neighbor was so anxious to avoid. Others who punched above their weight to help the Uighurs — Bermuda, which took four in June 2009, and Palau, which took six in October 2009 — did so not only for influence and/or financial reward, but also because they were not afraid of China: wealthy Bermuda because it is immune to the need for Chinese support, and Palau because the tiny nation in the north Pacific deals with Taiwan rather than Beijing.
As for the Saudi story, the Washington Post correctly noted that Brennan’s meeting involved hopes that King Abdullah would accept some of the Yemenis into its rehabilitation program, but noted that this was “an ambition that faltered along with the plan to close Guantanamo Bay” — as indeed it did, quietly fading away despite extensive and hopeful reporting about the plan, which lasted throughout most of 2009.
This kind of vague reference to the failure to close Guantánamo is as far as the mainstream media has gone in its analysis of why negotiations with other countries were so important. For those seeking powerful headlines that never appear, the blunt truth is that almost everything of importance relating to Guantánamo, and an unacceptable situation in which, it now appears, the prison may never close, involves four parties in the US, and has nothing whatsoever to do with Wikileaks or with other countries, as it relates primarily to the miserable manner in which the resettlement of the Uighurs was handled.
The first of these four culpable parties is President Obama’s Justice Department, which, in February 2009, fought to prevent the Uighurs from being rehoused in the US, as ordered by Judge Ricardo Urbina when he granted their habeas corpus petition in October 2008.
The second is the D.C. Circuit Court, which agreed with the Justice Department, and made some contentious arguments about immigration and executive power to prevent their release.
The third is Congress, which came close to passing a law preventing any Guantánamo prisoner from being brought to the US mainland for any reason in the fall of 2009, but then relented, agreeing — in theory, at least — that prisoners could be brought to the mainland for trial, but not for any other reason (although no one has been transferred to the US since the law was passed).
The fourth is President Obama, who, in May 2009, killed a plan by White House Counsel Greg Craig to bring two of the Uighurs to live in the US, as a precursor to bringing more, and on the clear understanding that it would encourage other countries to take cleared prisoners who couldn’t be returned home.
Although these decisions paved the way for the negotiations highlighted in the Wikileaks documents, the main problem now is that it looks as though even the horse-trading has stopped. There are apparently 33 prisoners — most of whom face the risk of torture if repatriated — who are awaiting release, or who are “approved for transfer,” to use the phrase that Obama’s interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force learned from President Bush when it reviewed the cases of all the prisoners last year, although the well of countries prepared to take them appears to have dried up.
And the rest? There are 58 Yemenis, also “approved for transfer,” but held on what seems to be a permanent basis because of a moratorium on releasing anyone to Yemen, which President Obama announced last January, after it was revealed that the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had trained in Yemen; 34 other men, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, who were recommended for trials that Obama doesn’t want to risk pursuing; and 48 others whom the Task Force recommended should be held indefinitely without charge or trial.
Compared to this, some horse-trading and financial incentives are nothing, and compared to making deals with other countries, the real story is that Guantánamo may never close, and no one seems to care.