Guantanamo Envoy: U.S. Should Have Taken Cleared Prisoners; Some Should Never Have Been Held

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, Daniel Fried came across as an eminently reasonable man placed in a disturbingly unreasonable position by his bosses. A senior diplomat, who was the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs for four years, Fried was plucked from his job in March 2009 to become the Obama administration’s Special Envoy to Guantánamo, serving as a member of the interagency Task Force charged with reviewing the cases of the remaining Guantánamo prisoners, and responsible, primarily, for finding countries to accept dozens of prisoners who have been cleared for release, either by the Task Force, often based on decisions already taken by Bush-era military review boards, or by the courts, after successful habeas corpus petitions.

These are men who cannot be returned to their home countries because of fears that they will face torture, or further arbitrary imprisonment, on their return, although Fried is also responsible for trying to broker a deal with Yemen, whose nationals make up around 40 percent of the remaining 225 prisoners. Fried spoke mainly to the BBC about negotiations with Europe, but it is apparent that attempts to overcome the long-standing failure to secure a deal with the Yemeni government remains one of the most difficult tasks that he faces.

In an interview for Radio 4’s Today program, which was partly filmed and televised on BBC News, Fried gave Jon Manel a largely spin-free account of the problems he faces, some of which have been exacerbated by the U.S. government’s unwillingness — or inability — to resettle some cleared prisoners on the U.S. mainland.

To my mind, President Obama missed a golden opportunity to bring 17 prisoners to the U.S.. in his early days in office. These men, the Uighurs (Muslims who had fled oppression in China’s Xinjiang province, and who were sold to U.S. forces after being betrayed by Pakistani villagers, following their flight from Afghanistan) had been cleared of any involvement with al-Qaeda, the Taliban or any form of international terrorism by the Bush administration and by the U.S. courts, but the President wavered, allowing Guantánamo’s supporters in Congress (scaremongers inspired by the hateful and false rhetoric of former Vice President Dick Cheney) to gain the upper hand, eventually persuading Congress to pass legislation blocking the transfer of any cleared prisoners to the U.S. mainland.

Fried began by explaining that his job was “miserable,” because he was “cleaning up a problem” inherited from the Bush administration, which had nothing to do with advancing any positive aspects of U.S. policy. “It’s not like we’re advancing liberty or making peace,” he said. He added that working out what to do with the remaining prisoners is “a huge problem and a complicated one,” but according to Manel, although he said that he would “not criticize Congress,” he stated, unambiguously, “It is fair to say, as just an objective statement, that the U.S. could resettle more detainees [worldwide], had we been willing to take in some.”

The interview was also notable for the following frank exchange about the perception of the remaining prisoners as “the worst of the worst,” which included, I believe, the first public admission, by a senior Obama administration official, that some of the prisoners were nothing more than low-level Taliban recruits, in an inter-Muslim civil war (with the Northern Alliance) that preceded the 9/11 attacks and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or international terrorism, and that they should not have been in Guantánamo for the last seven years:

Daniel Fried: The detainees in Guantánamo run a spectrum. Some really are awful. Some qualify as “the worst of the worst,” and we’re going to put those on trial. Some, frankly, should not have been in Guantánamo for the past seven years.

Jon Manel: So they were innocent?

Daniel Fried: Innocent, guilt … I look at their files and some of them seem relatively benign, and I have in mind the Uighurs, in particular, but others …

Jon Manel: They’re the minority from China …

Daniel Fried: That’s right, the Uighur minority from China, but if I had to describe — if there’s such a thing as an average Guantánamo detainee, it’s someone who was a volunteer, a low-level trainee or a very low-level fighter in a very bad cause, but not a hardened terrorist, not an organizer. Now it is those people whom we’re asking Europeans to take a look at, and each government has to evaluate the background of each individual and make a decision.

Despite his criticism of the implications of the failure to accept any cleared prisoners into the United States, Fried did make the point that “parliamentarians in Europe” — as well as the U.S. – “have raised questions about security, and we have to respect those opinions,” although he was also concerned to publicize the successful resettlement of four of the Uighurs in Bermuda (in June), even though it had apparently brought him into conflict with the British government, because, as the BBC described it, “Bermuda is a British overseas territory and Britain was not informed until the last minute.”

“The British government, it is fair to say, cannot be considered part of the deal. This was worked out between the Americans and the Bermudans,” Fried told Manel, adding, “I will say that I’ve been admonished by the British government in very clear terms.” He insisted, however, that the deal had been successful. “We are very grateful to the Bermudan government and the behavior of the four Uighurs has been exemplary, which really bolsters our contention that they were not any kind of threat,” he said, adding, “These are four people who are enjoying freedom who would otherwise be in Guantánamo.”

This was an important point to make, although I maintain that the Uighurs’ “exemplary” behavior, which “bolsters” the government’s “contention that they were not any kind of threat,” would have had a far more powerful impact if it had happened in Washington D.C., where American citizens would have been able to appreciate, first-hand, that the Uighurs are not, and have never been terrorists.

In conclusion, Fried told Manel that he was “confident” that the President’s January deadline for closing Guantánamo would be met, although he could not guarantee it. “President Obama’s timetable is what we’ve got,” he said, “we don’t have Plan Bs, we’re looking at that timetable. We’ve got a lot of work to do, we need help getting this done, and we’re going to be working hard at it. But you’re not going to have Guantánamo II. Whatever solution we come up with, it will be one based firmly on the rule of law and transparency.”

Fried’s interview coincided with an announcement that Hungary is preparing to take a cleared prisoner from Guantánamo, to add to those already accepted by the UK (Binyam Mohamed, a British resident, in February), France (Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian, in May), and Portugal (Mohammed al-Tumani and Moammar Dokhan, both Syrians, last month). Other countries who have agreed to take cleared prisoners are Belgium, Ireland, Italy (although with some disturbing conditions), and Spain, and discussions are apparently ongoing with both Lithuania and Switzerland.

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