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U.S. haggled to find takers for Gitmo detainees

State Department cables show the efforts by the United States to reduce the population of the Guantánamo prison so it can eventually close.
Image: Detainees gather to check out library books at Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center
Detainees gather to check out library books in the Guantanamo Bay detention center in March, 2010. According to recent State Department documents leaked by watchdog group WikiLeaks, American diplomats went looking for countries that were not only willing to take in former prisoners but also could trusted to keep them under close watch. (Note: Image was reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.) John Moore / Getty Images file
/ Source: The New York Times

Last year, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia proposed an unorthodox way to return Guantánamo Bay prisoners to a chaotic country like Yemen without fear that they would disappear and join a terrorist group.

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,” Mr. 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 organizations that reveal the painstaking efforts by the United States 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 International Monetary Fund 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 program for its own citizens, the president of Yemen repeatedly asked Mr. Brennan, “How many dollars will the U.S. bring?”

Contrary to American values
Mr. 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 Mr. Obama missed his deadline, and the goal has faded as a priority, with domestic opposition to moving some detainees to a prison inside the United States and with other countries that condemned the Guantánamo prison reluctant to take in detainees.

While Mr. Obama went to Norway to collect a Nobel Peace Prize, for example, the Norwegians called resettling Guantánamo detainees “purely a U.S. responsibility.”

Germany and several other European countries that had criticized the prison eventually accepted a few detainees but balked at taking as many as the United States 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 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, 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.

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 U.S. 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.

Few allies eager to help
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.”

“As always, the Albanians are willing to go the extra mile to assist with one of our key foreign policy priorities,” a cable said.

The United States 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 Mr. Brennan, Mr. 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.”

Mr. Saleh’s erratic approach compounded the situation. In that same conversation, for example, he “signaled that rehabilitation is not his concern, but rather ‘the U.S.’s problem’ because he is ready and willing to accept all Yemeni detainees into the Yemen prison system.”

But moments later, he assured Mr. Brennan that he was committed to “freeing the innocent people after a complete and total rehabilitation.”

Neither Mr. Saleh nor the Saudis were enthusiastic about an American proposal to send Yemeni detainees to a Saudi deradicalization program, cables show. But when Mr. Saleh proposed a Yemeni version, the United States showed interest — but also caution.

In March 2009, Mr. Saleh demanded $11 million to build such a program in Aden, but Mr. Brennan replied that “such a program 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, Mr. Saleh “repeatedly,” according to a cable, asked how much money he could expect. When Mr. Brennan “offered $500,000 as an initial investment currently available for the crafting of a rehabilitation program, Saleh dismissed the offer as insufficient,” the cable said.

Saudi rehabilitation program
Several cables shed light on the Saudis’ rehabilitation program. 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 percent, arguing that “the real story of the Saudi rehabilitation program is one of success: at least 90 percent 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 program was “serious but not perfect,” citing a failure rate of 10 to 20 percent.

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.

“You know better than I that we cannot deal with these people,” the minister, Sheik Jaber al-Khaled al-Sabah, told the ambassador, a cable reported. “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.”

Mr. Sabah’s private comments contrasted with the public stance of his government. Under domestic pressure to urge the United States to send home all Kuwaitis from Guantánamo, Kuwait has strongly suggested that it is doing so.

The United States often has required countries to impose travel bans — among other restrictions, including continuing surveillance — on freed prisoners, sometimes with mixed success.

In February 2009, for example, a diplomat in Qatar urged Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. 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 freed prisoner, Jarallah al-Marri, had traveled to Britain to join a speaking tour with another former prisoner, Moazzam Begg, a British-Pakistani citizen.

Another American diplomat later praised Mr. Begg’s activities, saying he had pressed Luxembourg’s foreign minister to take in detainees, and — displaying “minimal ill will toward his captors” — reiterated that request at an Amnesty International event.

“Mr. Begg is doing our work for us, and his articulate, reasoned presentation makes for a convincing argument,” a January 2010 cable said. “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.”

Charlie Savage reported from Washington, and Andrew W. Lehren from New York.

This article, "," first appeared in the New York Times.