Leaks show US haggling to find takers for detainees

American diplomats scouted for countries willing to take in former prisoners of Guantanamo Bay

the secret is out Three Uighur Muslims freed from the Guantanamo Bay prison at St George, Bermuda, on June, 14. The US State Department cables reveal the painstaking efforts by the US to safely reduce the population of the prison, so it could eventually close. NYT

The king told a top White House aide, John O Brennan, that the United States should implant an electronic chip in each detainee to track his movements, as is sometimes done with horses and falcons.

“Horses don’t have good lawyers,” Brennan replied. That unusual discussion in March 2009 was one of hundreds recounted in a cache of secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to a number of news organisations that reveal the painstaking efforts by the US to safely reduce the population of the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba so that it could eventually be closed.

American diplomats went looking for countries that were not only willing to take in former prisoners but also could be trusted to keep them under close watch. In a global bazaar of sorts, the American officials sweet-talked and haggled with their foreign counterparts in an effort to resettle the detainees who had been cleared for release but could not be repatriated for fear of mistreatment, the cables show.

Slovenia, seeking a meeting with President Obama, was encouraged to ‘do more’ on detainee resettlement if it wanted to ‘attract higher-level attention from Washington’; its prime minister later “linked acceptance of detainees to ‘a 20-minute meeting’ ” with the president, but the session — and the prisoner transfer — never happened. The Maldives tied acceptance of prisoners to American help in obtaining IMF assistance, while the Bush administration offered the Pacific nation of Kiribati ‘an incentive package’ of $3 million to take 17 Chinese Muslim detainees, the cables show. In discussions about creating a rehabilitation programme for its own citizens, the president of Yemen repeatedly asked Brennan, “How many dollars will the US bring?”

Obama won praise from around the world when, shortly after taking office in 2009, he ordered the Guantánamo Bay prison closed within a year, saying it was contrary to American values and a symbol for terrorist propaganda.

By then, the Bush administration already had transferred more than 500 of the detainees it had sent to Guantánamo, and the Obama administration has since winnowed the population to 174 from 240, with help from Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and other countries. But Obama missed his deadline, and the goal has faded as a priority, with domestic opposition to moving some detainees to a prison inside the US and with other countries that condemned the Guantánamo prison reluctant to take in detainees.

While Obama went to Norway to collect a Nobel Peace Prize, for example, the Norwegians called resettling Guantánamo detainees ‘purely a US responsibility.’ Germany and several other European countries that had criticised the prison eventually accepted a few detainees but balked at taking as many as the US had hoped.

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 CIA had run a secret jail in Lithuania. The chairman of the Lithuanian parliament’s national security committee privately apologised and suggested using mutual allies to pressure her to reconsider, the cables show.

Other dispatches illuminated the difficulties of resettling Uighurs, Chinese Muslim prisoners who had been ordered freed by a federal judge. China was deemed likely to abuse them, but Beijing demanded their return.

Prudent actions

At an October 2009 meeting in Beijing, a Chinese official linked the Uighurs to American hopes to secure supply routes through China for the Afghan war, saying, “More ‘prudent’ actions by the US on the Guantánamo Uighurs would help remove ‘some of the obstacles’ on the Chinese side to helping with the shipments.”

And an aide to Finland’s prime minister confided in August 2009 “that Chinese diplomats in Helsinki have repeatedly warned them about the damage to bilateral relations should Finland accept any Uighurs,” a cable said.

Still, a few allies were eager to help. After accepting five Chinese Muslims in 2006, Albania’s prime minister in 2009 offered to resettle three to six detainees not from China. American diplomats portrayed his offer as “gracious, but probably extravagant.”

The US repatriated other detainees for prosecution at home. Afghanistan, however, 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,’ diplomats in Kabul complained in a July 2009 cable.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to closing the prison has been figuring out what to do with detainees from Yemen, who constitute about half of the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo. In a September 2009 meeting with Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, proposed transferring them all into his prisons. But, a cable later said, “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.”

Neither Saleh nor the Saudis were enthusiastic about an American proposal to send Yemeni detainees to a Saudi deradicalisation programme, cables show. But when Saleh proposed a Yemeni version, the US showed interest — but also caution.

In March 2009, Saleh demanded $11 million to build such a programme in Aden, but Brennan replied that “such a programme takes time to develop and that Saleh had his hands full dealing with al-Qaeda in Yemen.” When the two met again six months later, Saleh ‘repeatedly’, according to a cable, asked how much money he could expect. When Brennan “offered $5,00,000 as an initial investment currently available for the crafting of a rehabilitation programme, Saleh dismissed the offer as insufficient,” the cable said.

Several cables shed light on the Saudis’ rehabilitation programme. A March 2009 dispatch estimated that the program had processed 1,500 extremists, including 119 former detainees. That cable put the ‘recidivism rate’ at 8 to 10 per cent, arguing that “the real story of the Saudi rehabilitation programme is one of success: at least 90 per cent of its graduates appear to have given up jihad and reintegrated into Saudi society.”

Over time, however, the numbers apparently slipped. In March 2010, Daniel Fried, the State Department’s special envoy for closing the Guantánamo prison, told European Union officials that the Saudi programme was “serious but not perfect,” citing a failure rate of 10 to 20 per cent. Another cable noted that of 85 militants on a ‘most wanted’ list published by Saudi authorities in early 2009, 11 were former Guantánamo detainees. But 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 suicide bomber proved deeply embarrassing for the Kuwaiti government. Months later, in February 2009, Kuwait’s interior minister proposed a solution for other detainees who seemed too extremist for reintegration into society: let them die in combat.

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