How Congress helped thwart Obama's plan to close Guantánamo

The camps at Guantánamo were supposed to close one year ago, by order of President Obama. Here's the inside story of what happened.

01/22/2011 8:00 PM

10/22/2014 2:01 PM

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 Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a trove of State Department documents 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 United States.

In cable after cable made public by the website WikiLeaks, 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 detainees.

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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 took two.

Closing the Guantánamo detention center had been a key promise of the Obama presidential campaign, and 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 Guantánamo within a year. European countries were effusive in their praise.

But as the second anniversary of that order passed Saturday, the prison camps remained open, and the prospects of their closure appeared 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 United States should grow the population to perhaps 800 from the current 173.

WHAT WENT WRONG

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.

``Were we willing to take a couple of detainees ourselves, it would've made the job of moving detainees out of Guantánamo 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 to find new homes for 38 Guantánamo detainees in 16 countries, including Bermuda, Bulgaria, Palau and Portugal.

Why?

Some countries found the individual stories of men at Guantánamo 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.''

Placing Guantánamo 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.

A 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.

RESETTLED

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 at Guantánamo.

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.

Under 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 Guantánamo detainees, has been helpful.

In 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 Guantánamo 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 Youssef.

$11 MILLION IDEA

Saleh was seeking $11 million to build its own rehab center in the port city where al-Qaida suicide bombers in 2000 blew up the U.S. destroyer Cole, killing 17 American sailors.

``We will offer the land in Aden, and you and the Saudis will provide the funding,'' he was quoted as saying in a March 2009 cable.

A 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 Guantánamo captives with ties there.

The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, told members ``the U.S. could not expect European countries to accept detainees from Guantánamo if the U.S. were not willing to accept some on U.S. soil.''

The stigma of Guantánamo 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 threat.''

A SUGGESTION

She provided a suggestion for changing public opinion.

``We need better pictures,'' she said, urging the United States to replace the image of the iconic Guantánamo detainees on his knees in orange jumpsuit.

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 Guantánamo and Congress' ``zero willingness'' to accept that some detainees might be released into the United States.

``We let rapists and pedophiles out of custody every day, and there's an acceptance that there is a risk they will reoffend,'' says Boucek.

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.''

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