Despite numerous references to Guantánamo in the 251,287 US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, which deal largely with negotiations to rehouse cleared prisoners who could not — or cannot — be repatriated because of fears of torture or other ill-treatment in their home countries, there has been almost no mention of why this need to find third countries arose in the first place: because of the persistent refusal of the US, at every level of government — from the courts to Congress to the Obama administration itself — to accept responsibility for any of these men, and to offer them a new home on the US mainland.
In addition, as well as ignoring this important contextual analysis in the coverage of cables from embassies and consulates around the world, there has also been a distinct refusal to discuss the bigger picture: the Obama adminstration’s retreat from boldness to paralysis regarding the closure of the prison, and decisions on whether to charge or release the men held there (or, it should be noted, whether to reclassify some as prisoners of war).
Nevertheless, the documents have been useful for revealing more than was previously known about the horse-trading involved in negotiations with the Maldives, Bulgaria, Norway, Lithania, Slovenia, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, China, Germany, Finland, Albania, Afghanistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia — and also for revealing praise for the efforts of former prisoner Moazzam Begg in seeking the release of former prisoners in Luxembourg.
The New York Times reported that the Maldives “tied acceptance of prisoners to American help in obtaining International Monetary Fund assistance,” which evidently didn’t happen — or, at least, has not happened yet, although Der Spiegel noted that Daniel Fried, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Guantánamo, had been involved in financial negotiations with politicians in the Maldives, telling them that “other states had received $25,000 to $85,000 per detainee to cover ‘temporary living expenses and other costs,’” and attempting to reassure them that they “could expect something toward the upper end of the range.”
Bulgaria, which took one prisoner in May this year, was also involved in financial negotiations. The interior ministry, as Der Spiegel described it, “expressed willingness to accept two men, on condition that the US got rid of visa requirements for Bulgarian tourists and businessmen and helped with relocation expenses,” which led Daniel Fried to propose “a symbolic amount in the neighbourhood of $50,000 – $80,000 per detainee.”
Other countries, the cables reveal, had no interest in accepting former prisoners under any circumstances. The Norwegians, for example, called resettling Guantánamo detainees “purely a US responsibility,” at the same time that President Obama was in Norway to collect his aspirational and undeserved Nobel Peace Prize.
The cables also reveal that, in the fall of 2009, Lithuania’s newly elected president “backed out of her country’s previous agreement to resettle a prisoner amid an uproar over reports that the Central Intelligence Agency had run a secret jail in Lithuania.” The chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament’s national security committee “privately apologized and suggested using mutual allies to pressure her to reconsider,” but that too has not led to any action to date.
More details also emerged of the State Department’s dealings with Slovenia and Kiribati, which I mentioned in a previous article. Slovenia “was encouraged to ‘do more’ on detainee resettlement if it wanted to ‘attract higher-level attention from Washington,’” and it was noted that the prime minister later “linked acceptance of detainees to ‘a 20-minute meeting’” with Obama, “but the session — and the prisoner transfer — never happened.” With Kiribati, the Bush administration offered “an incentive package” of $3 million to take all 17 Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, and the most high-profile cleared prisoners at Guantánamo), but that too never came to fruition.
The plight of the Uighurs
The plight of the Uighurs is the focus of much of the horse-trading revealed in the cables. The 17 Uighurs, seized by Pakistani villagers and sold to US forces after fleeing a settlement in the Afghan mountains, won their habeas corpus petition in the District Court in Washington D.C. in October 2008, but were then prevented from being resettled on the US mainland, as ordered by the judge in their case, in a hearing in the D.C. Circuit Court in February 2009, in which Obama’s Justice Department fought to prevent their release. The cables reveal that, at a meeting in Beijing in October 2009, a Chinese official suggested that, if the Americans wanted to help secure supply routes through China for the Afghan war, then more “prudent” actions regarding the Guantánamo Uighurs — in other words, returning them to Chinese custody — “would help remove ‘some of the obstacles’ on the Chinese side to helping with the shipments.”
To their credit, neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration ever contemplated returning the men to China, understanding that to do so would inevitably lead to their disappearance, possibly forever. Nevertheless, having failed to accept responsibility for finding the men new homes on the US mainland, the Obama administration faced an uphill struggle persuading others to do so, before finally securing homes for 12 of them in Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland, leaving five still stranded in Guantánamo.
The problem, as was highlighted in Germany’s response to a request to take the men, was that China’s opposition was difficult to ignore. Negotiations were covered in the media at the time, but the cables add some first-hand accounts from those involved in the negotiations. In May 2009, for example, a cable from an ambassadors’ meeting in Beijing stated that “German ambassador Michael Schaefer reported that Germany had informed China of the US request to accept some Uighur detainees held at Guantánamo and had been subsequently warned by China of ‘a heavy burden on bilateral relations’ if Germany were to accept any detainees,” and although Daniel Fried tried to exert pressure on Germany to take two brothers, one of whom had mental health problems, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s security advisor Christoph Heusgen “was not optimistic that China would demonstrate any understanding for the two humanitarian cases.” The men were eventually resettled in Switzerland, in March this year, while Germany belatedly took two other men — a stateless Palestinian and a Syrian — in August.
In addition, an aide to Finland’s prime minister stated in August 2009 that Chinese diplomats in Helsinki had “repeatedly warned them about the damage to bilateral relations should Finland accept any Uighurs,” and although Albania, which took five Uighurs in 2006, was not prepared to take any more, the cables note that Albania offered in 2009 to take three to six non-Chinese prisoners. This was described as “gracious, but probably extravagant,” and it was noted, “As always, the Albanians are willing to go the extra mile to assist with one of our key foreign policy priorities.” Despite the slightly patronising tone, Albania proved a willing ally, taking three men in February this year.
There is also mention of Afghanistan, where, in July 2009, diplomats in Kabul complained that the Karzai government had failed to ensure an agreement that returned prisoners would face prosecution, and “granted pretrial releases to 29 out of 41 such former detainees from Guantánamo,” allowing “dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court.”
The problem with Yemen
Mostly, however, the cables identify problems with Yemen, and the New York Times focused, in particular, on a meeting between John Brennan and the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in September 2009. This was before seven Yemenis were successfully released, which was a positive move, but it was also before President Obama announced an unprincipled moratorium on releasing any more Yemenis, in January this year, following Republican hysteria at the discovery that the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had trained in Yemen.
The cables reveal that President Saleh “proposed transferring them all into his prisons,” but US officials later concluded, “Saleh would, in our judgment, be unable to hold returning detainees in jail for any more than a matter of weeks before public pressure — or the courts — forced their release.”
As with Afghanistan, the problem of requiring countries to do more than monitor returned prisoners is problematical, given that they have never been charged, tried or convicted of any offense, and I maintain — however contentious it may seem — that, after nine years, releasing everyone that the adminstration has no intention of putting on trial (or reclassifying as prisoners of war) is more important than remaining paralyzed by the fear that a handful of released men might bear a grudge and end up engaging, or reengaging in combat against the US.
I do sympathize, however, with the frustrations of dealing with President Saleh, as revealed in what the Times described as his “erratic approach” in that same meeting, in which, on the one hand, he “signaled that rehabilitation is not his concern, but rather ‘the US’s problem’ because he is ready and willing to accept all Yemeni detainees into the Yemen prison system,” but then, on the other hand, almost immediately told Brennan that he was committed to “freeing the innocent people after a complete and total rehabilitation.”
President Saleh was also anxious for money from the US. The Times noted that neither he nor the Saudis “were enthusiastic about an American proposal to send Yemeni detainees to a Saudi deradicalization program,” but that “when Mr. Saleh proposed a Yemeni version, the United States showed interest — but also caution.”
In March 2009, he “demanded $11 million to build such a program in Aden,” but Brennan told him that “such a program takes time to develop and that Saleh had his hands full dealing with al-Qaeda in Yemen.” When they met again in September, Saleh “repeatedly” asked, “How many dollars will the US bring?” When Brennan “offered $500,000 as an initial investment currently available for the crafting of a rehabilitation program, Saleh dismissed the offer as insufficient.”
Saudi rehab, alleged recidivism, and excessive security concerns
In other cables, the Saudi rehabilitation program was discussed — and the alleged rate of recidivism of those put through the program, which is a profound problem for those seeking the closure of Guantánamo, because, in recent years, the Pentagon has released a number of scaremongering press releases, or insubstantial reports, which in turn, have irresponsibly inspired further Republican opposition to the closure of Guantánamo.
The cables, while revealing an increase in suspected recidivism, do not back up the Pentagon’s most outrageous claims. In March 2009, it was “estimated that the program had processed 1,500 extremists, including 119 former detainees,” and that the recidivism rate was between 8 and 10 percent. “[T]he real story of the Saudi rehabilitation program is one of success,” a cable stated, adding, “at least 90 percent of its graduates appear to have given up jihad and reintegrated into Saudi society.”
By March this year, however, Daniel Fried “told European Union officials that the Saudi program was ‘serious but not perfect,’ citing a failure rate of 10 to 20 percent” — which, even if true, is still far from the 20 percent of the 532 prisoners released by President Bush, which is what the Pentagon claimed, without providing evidence, in January this year.
Other cables covered familiar territory, noting, as previously reported, that “of 85 militants on a ‘most wanted’ list published by Saudi authorities in early 2009, 11 were former Guantánamo detainees,” although the Times also noted that “the cables offer details on only a few individual cases — like a Saudi who became a leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch and a Kuwaiti who committed a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2008, both of which have been previously reported.”
The Times did, however, add that the death of Abdullah al-Ajmi, the Kuwaiti, “proved deeply embarrassing for the Kuwaiti government,” and that, in February 2009, Kuwait’s interior minister, Sheik Jaber al-Khaled al-Sabah, told the US ambassador, “You know better than I that we cannot deal with these people. If they are rotten, they are rotten and the best thing to do is get rid of them. You picked them up in Afghanistan; you should drop them off in Afghanistan, in the middle of the war zone.”
The Times suggested that “Sabah’s private comments contrasted with the public stance of his government,” which, “[u]nder domestic pressure to urge the United States to send home all Kuwaitis from Guantánamo … has strongly suggested that it is doing so,” but this may be reading too much into his comments, as there have been no problems with other Kuwaitis returned from Guantánamo, and nor are there any indications, from those who know the stories well, that either of the remaining Kuwaitis in Guantánamo, Fawzi al-Odah and Fayiz al-Kandari, who lost their habeas corpus petitions on thin or non-existent evidence, pose a threat to anybody. Instead, as reported earlier this year, part of the problem seems to be that the Obama administration has tried to impose unreasonable demands on the liberty of those already released before it will engage in dialogue regarding the release of al-Odah and al-Kandari.
The security concerns — beyond those previously mentioned with reference to Afghanistan and Yemen — are also touched on in the cables. As the Times noted, “The United States often has required countries to impose travel bans — among other restrictions, including continuing surveillance — on freed prisoners, sometimes with mixed success.” The Times proceeded to explain how, in February 2009, a US diplomat in Qatar urged Attorney General Eric Holder “not to meet with his Qatari counterpart, citing reports that a Qatari former detainee traveled ‘despite explicit assurances that he would not be permitted to do so.’” The man in question, Jarallah al-Marri, had “traveled to Britain to join a speaking tour” — entitled “Two Sides, One Story,” organized by the NGO Cageprisoners, which also featured the organization’s director, Moazzam Begg, and other released prisoners, including Omar Deghayes.
I met Jarallah at the start of the tour, along with the former Guantánamo guard Chris Arendt, and was happy to do so, finding him to be an articulate men, quietly appalled by the treatment of prisoners in the “War on Terror,” and I thought that his freedom to travel to the UK showed a certain degree of enlightenment on the part of the UK authorities. I was therefore disappointed when, a few weeks later, after he had returned to Qatar and was trying to return to the UK, he was imprisoned in a deportation centre and then deported.
Praise for Moazzam Begg
Despite this, there was high praise for Moazzam Begg from another American diplomat, who was present during a visit to Luxembourg by Begg — and representatives of Reprieve and the Center for Constitutional Rights — in January this year, as part of a number of visits to European capitals in an attempt to persuade countries to take in former prisoners. Despite initial reticence, Luxembourg was persuaded to take in a former prisoner, a Yemeni, although the plans fell through when the man in question decided that he would prefer to be returned to his home country (although he is, or course, still held). Neverthless, the success of the mission — which also swayed opinion in Germany, leading to the acceptance of the two former prisoners in August — can be gauged by a cable from the US diplomat, who stated:
Begg, an articulate man, argued that there are dozens of prisoners in GTMO just like him — not dangerous to society, able to communicate and assimilate, able to be a contributing and responsible member of society — and they just need governments to stand up and offer them a place to call home. In an interview … Begg was asked if countries like Luxembourg have a responsibility regarding ex-detainees. Begg reportedly responded that it is a European tradition to offer asylum to refugees, and that this tradition also should be extended to former Guantánamo detainees who have not been convicted of crimes, are not dangerous, and are deemed as releasable.
At a screening of the Oscar-winning documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side,” much of which, according to the cable, “was an undisguised attack on the Bush Administration, focusing much of its venom on Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Former Vice President Cheney,” it was noted that “Mr. Begg, on the other hand, presented an image of ‘forgive, but never forget,’ and has focused his attentions not on the ill treatment he allegedly received, but on what can be done to resettle the remaining ‘releasable’ prisoners in Guantánamo Bay … During his presentation, Begg spoke almost exclusively of the future, with hardly any mention of the past. He did not discuss the question of legality of torture. Rather than stressing past injustices, he focused on what to do now. He acknowledged that he lives with the past, but that he now wants to be part of the solution, and is working to convince Luxembourg and other governments — and their populaces — to want the same.”
The cable continued:
In a 90-minute Q&A session, Begg was asked, how would ex-detainees fit in in Luxembourg. How would it work? Where would they live? How would they be supported? The fear and skepticism was palpable in the audience. Begg and his NGO cohorts stressed that there were Algerians and Tunisians in GTMO who could come to Luxembourg and speak French, one of Luxembourg’s official and most-commonly used languages. He stressed that neighboring countries — France, Belgium, Portugal, Ireland — provided examples. Begg even argued that if detainees could fit in in Palau, they could do the same in Luxembourg. Begg deplored that certain people believe the world is not big enough for the ex-detainees. He added that if there were colonies on the Moon, “I’m sure they’d send us there.”
Begg declined to speak about specific physical transgressions against his person. When told how physically well and mentally sound he appeared, he joked, “Well, I used to be taller.” Begg spoke articulately, demonstrating minimal ill will toward his captors — even going so far as to say he speaks on the phone occasionally with his former interrogators. Consular officer took note of the following exchange: Asked if he would ever consider a return to the US, Begg replied that he had never been to the US, but that the US had come to him. Begg commented that as a British citizen, he could travel to the US without a visa, but that he thinks he would need “a lot more than a visa to get out.”
The cable concluded:
Mr. Begg is doing our work for us, and his articulate, reasoned presentation makes for a convincing argument. It is ironic that after four years of imprisonment and alleged torture, Moazzam Begg is delivering the same [message] as we are: please consider accepting GTMO detainees for resettlement.
… but problems remain
This is a positive note on which to end, but I reiterate that, above all, the cables deflect attention from the United States’ own responsibility for taking in cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated, and also deflect from an even bigger issue: America’s failure to close Guantánamo, as President Obama promised in January 2009. There is also another unexplored sub-text — that, with such obvious wheeling and dealing going on, the welfare of the released men, and their legal status, might not be a priority for any of the parties concerned. This is a topic that has not yet been addressed thoroughly, but it will have to be tackled one day, because, although free from Guantánamo, the men scattered around the world remain tainted by their detention, and are still, essentially, the “enemy combatants” conjured up by the Bush administration at the height of the lawless frenzy of the “War on Terror.”
While stories of problems encountered by recently released prisoners are only slowly emerging (as, for example, in Slovakia and Bulgaria), the cables reveal how the experience of the first eight men to be rehoused — five Uighurs and three other men, given new homes in Albania in 2006 — should have sounded warning bells for the Obama adminstration. As Der Spiegel reported:
Since [their arrival] there has been nothing but trouble — not because the men are dangerous, but simply because the State Department is allegedly breaking its promises. The Uighurs complained to the US Embassy in Tirana that before leaving Guantánamo they had been told, “in two months (from arrival in Albania), you will have a house, a job, money, documents. You will have everything you need.” In fact, it had been impossible for them to find work or permanent accommodation. They couldn’t marry either, they said, because Albanian fathers didn’t want former Guantánamo detainees as sons-in-law. They also claimed they were being overcharged by the state electricity company.
At their wits end, US diplomats relayed their frustration back to Washington: “Post does not have the human or financial resources to provide full-time social work assistance.” They said the situation in Tirana threatened to spiral out of control unless action was taken quickly. “The prospect of eight ex-detainees camping at the Embassy’s front door, being dragged away by the Albanian police,” the dispatch read, “is another PR nightmare to be avoided.”