Two years after the newly minted Obama
administration moved to undo what had become one of the most
controversial legacies of the George W. Bush presidency by ordering the
closure of the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a trove of State
Department documents made public by the website WikiLeaks is providing
new information about why that effort failed.
Key among the factors, the cables suggest:
Congress' refusal to allow any of the captives to be brought to the
In cable after cable sent to the State Department
in Washington, American diplomats make it clear that the unwillingness
of the United States to resettle a single detainee in this country —
even from among 17 ethnic Muslim Uighurs considered enemies of China's
communist government — made other countries reluctant to take in
Europe balked and said the United States should go first. Yemen at
one point proposed the United States move the detainees from Cuba to
America's SuperMax prison in the Colorado Rockies. Saudi Arabia's king
suggested the military plant micro-chips in Guantanamo captives before
setting them free.
A January 2009 cable from Paris is a case in
point: France's chief diplomat on security matters insisted, the cable
said, that, as a precondition of France's resettling Guantanamo captives
the United States wants to let go, "the U.S. must agree to resettle
some of these same LOW-RISK DETAINEES in the U.S.'' In the end, France
Closing the Guantanamo detention center had been a key
promise of the Obama presidential campaign, and the new President Barack
Obama moved quickly to fulfill it.
Just two days after taking the
oath of office, on Jan. 22, 2009, Obama signed an executive order
instructing the military to close Guantanamo within a year. European
countries were effusive in their praise.
But as the second
anniversary of that order passed Saturday, the prison camps remain open,
and the prospects of their closure appear dim. Prosecutors are poised
to ramp up the military trials that Obama once condemned, and the new
Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck
McKeon of California, last week said the U.S. should grow the population
to perhaps 800 from the current 173.
Many factors worked to
thwart Obama's plans to close the camps — from a tangled bureaucracy to
fears that released detainees would become terrorists. But Congress'
prohibition on resettling any of the detainees in the United States
hamstrung the administration's global search for countries willing to
take the captives in.
The U.S. refusal to take in the captives
"comes up all the time," acknowledged a senior Obama administration
official of U.S. efforts to find homes for released detainees.
we willing to take a couple of detainees ourselves, it would've made
the job of moving detainees out of Guantanamo significantly easier,''
said the official, who agreed to speak only anonymously because of the
delicacy of the diplomacy.
Still, the Obama administration has
managed to arrange the find new homes for 38 Guantanamo detainees in 16
countries, including Bermuda, Bulgaria, Palau and Portugal.
countries found the individual stories of men at Guantanamo with no
place to go "compelling,'' the official said. "Some wanted to help the
United States in general. Some wanted to help Obama in particular.''
Mostly, "because they want to close Guantanamo despite the fact that
Congress is awful.''
Placing Guantanamo detainees was even more difficult even during the Bush administration, the WikiLeaks cables show.
Sweden in 2007 turned down a request that Stockholm provide safe haven for two Uzbek detainees who feared going home.
cable quotes Sweden's counterterrorism ambassador, Cecilia
Ruthstrom-Ruin, as declaring "it is natural to wonder why,'' if as free
men the ex-captives need monitoring, the United States doesn't undertake
to handle it.
In spite of those questions, the Bush
administration transferred more than 500 detainees, nearly all to their
home countries, and when Obama took office there were just 245 detainees
Resettling those that are cleared for release,
however, has been difficult, and Congress, concerned by U.S.
intelligence estimates that one-fourth of the captives freed over nine
years are suspected of having joined anti-American insurgencies, has
placed ever stricter limits on their transfers to other countries.
the Defense Department appropriations bill that Obama signed into law
two weeks ago, the administration not only can't use Pentagon funds to
bring detainees to the United States for trial, but must certify that
countries meet a set of security conditions before the U.S. can send
detainees to them.
In a signing statement, Obama objected to those restrictions, but he did not say he'd ignore them.
Not even Yemen, 90 of whose citizens make up the largest group by nationality of Guantanamo detainees, has been helpful.
March 2009, according to one of the cables, Yemeni President Ali
Abdullah Saleh told Obama's counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan that
he would not agree to Yemenis going from Guantanamo to a rehabilitation
program in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Instead, he suggested the
United States send his citizens to the federal SuperMax prison in
Florence, Colo., that houses such notorious killers as Unabomber Ted
Kaczynski, shoe bomber Richard Reid and World Trade Center bomber Ramzi
Saleh was seeking $11 million to build its own rehab
center in the port city where al Qaeda suicide bombers in 2000 blew up
the U.S. destroyer Cole, killing 17 American sailors.
offer the land in Aden, and you and the Saudis will provide the
funding,'' he was quoted as saying in a March 2009 cable.
September 2009 cable from Strasbourg, France, made clear what the Obama
administration was up against in setting its hopes on European
resettlement for long-held Guantanamo captives with ties there.
Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, told
members "the U.S. could not expect European countries to accept
detainees from Guantanamo if the U.S. were not willing to accept some on
The stigma of Guantanamo also was a problem, even
for those eventually cleared of terror ties. In February 2009, an
Estonian diplomat told an American envoy in Brussels that the United
States needed to begin educating its own citizens "that while some
detainees are very dangerous, many of them do not pose a serious
She provided a suggestion for changing public opinion.
need better pictures,'' she said, urging the United States to replace
the image of the iconic Guantanamo detainees on his knees in orange
Christopher Boucek, an expert on Islamic extremist
rehabilitation programs in the Arab World at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, says the cables illustrate the disconnect between
international contempt for Guantanamo and Congress' "zero willingness''
to accept that some detainees might be released into the United States.
let rapists and pedophiles out of custody every day, and there's an
acceptance that there is a risk they will reoffend,'' says Boucek.
noted that neither the Bush administration nor Obama's have "made a
good argument that every time you let somebody out of a custodial
situation there's a risk.''
Yet, the rest of the world sees
Guantanamo as a collection of both innocents and genuine enemies, as
illustrated by hundreds of Bush-era releases and dozens of court
decisions ordering detainees' release and wonders why some of the
innocents can't resettle in the United States.
"The rest of the
world looks at how we got ourselves into this Guantanamo mess,'' Boucek
said, "and there's no coherent logic on how we're going to get out of