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« Hoping to Avoid Bombs and Win Afghan Minds | Main | Watch for the VAT! »

Cables Depict US Haggling to Find Takers for Detainees

Oct. 27, 2009 | GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA | A number of leaked diplomatic cables reveal the efforts made by the United States to persuade other countries to resettle Guantánamo detainees so the prison could eventually be closed.

WASHINGTON — 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?”

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.

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.
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