WASHINGTON: In September, US State Department officials invited a foreign delegation to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre to persuade the group to take detainee Tariq Ba Odah to their country.
If they succeeded, the transfer would mark a small step toward realising President Barack Obama’s goal of closing the prison before he leaves office.
The foreign officials told the administration they would first need to review Ba Odah’s medical records, according to US officials with knowledge of the episode. The Yemeni has been on a hunger strike for seven years, dropping to 74 pounds from 148, and the foreign officials wanted to make sure they could care for him.
For the next six weeks, Pentagon officials declined to release the records, citing patient privacy concerns, according to the US officials.
The delegation, from a country administration officials declined to identify, cancelled its visit.
After the US administration promised to deliver the records, the delegation travelled to Guantanamo and appeared set to take the prisoner off US hands, the officials said. But the defence department again withheld the full medical file.
Today, nearly 14 years since he was placed in the prison and five years since he was cleared for release by United States military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, Ba Odah remains in Guantanamo.
In interviews with current and former administration officials involved in the effort to close Guantanamo, Reuters found that the struggle over Ba Odah’s medical records was part of a pattern.
Since President Obama took office in 2009, these people said, Pentagon officials had been throwing up bureaucratic obstacles to thwart his plan to close Guantanamo.
Negotiating prisoner releases with Pentagon was like “punching a pillow”, said James Dobbins, the State Department’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2014. Defence department officials “would come to a meeting, they would not make a counter-argument,” he said. “And then nothing would happen.”
Pentagon delays, he said, resulted in four Afghan detainees spending an additional four years in Guantanamo after being approved for transfer.
In other cases, the transfers of six prisoners to Uruguay, five to Kazakhstan, one to Mauritania and another to Britain were delayed for months or years by Pentagon resistance or inaction, the officials said.
To slow prisoner transfers, Pentagon officials have refused to provide photographs, complete medical records and other basic documentation to foreign governments willing to take detainees.
They have made it increasingly difficult for foreign delegations to visit Guantanamo, limited the time foreign officials can interview detainees and barred delegations from spending the night at Guantanamo.
Partly as a result of the Pentagon’s manoeuvres, it is increasingly doubtful that Mr Obama will fulfil a pledge he made in the 2008 presidential election to close the detention centre at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He criticised then president George W. Bush for having set up the prison for foreigners seized in the “war on terror” after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the US, and keeping them there for years without trial.
When President Obama took office, the prison held 242 detainees, down from a peak of about 680 in 2003. Today, with little more than a year remaining in his presidency, it still holds 107.
Pentagon officials denied any intentional effort to slow transfers.
“No foreign government or US department has ever notified the Department of Defence that transfer negotiations collapsed due to a lack of information or access provided by the Department of Defence,” said Pentagon spokesman Gary Ross, a navy commander.
Myles Caggins, a White House spokesman, denied discord with the Pentagon. “We’re all committed to the same goal: safely and responsibly closing the detention facility.”
Former secretary of defence Chuck Hagel said in an interview that it was natural for the Pentagon to be cautious on transfers that could result in detainees rejoining the fight against US forces. “Look at where most of the casualties have come from — it’s the military,” he said.
The Pentagon’s slow pace in approving transfers was a factor in President Obama’s decision to remove Mr Hagel in February, former administration officials said. And in September, amid continuing Pentagon delays, President Obama upbraided Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in a one-to-one meeting, according to the officials briefed on the encounter.
Since then, the Pentagon has been more cooperative. Administration officials said they expected to begin transferring at least 17 detainees to other countries in January.
Difficult and protracted
Military officials, however, continue to make transfers more difficult and protracted than necessary, according to administration officials. In particular, they cited Gen John F. Kelly, in charge of the US Southern Command which includes Guantanamo.
They said Gen Kelly, whose son was killed fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, opposes the president’s policy of closing Guantanamo and that he and his command had created obstacles for visiting delegations.
The general denied that he or his command had limited delegation visits. “Our staff works closely with the members of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay and Joint Task Force Guantanamo to support the visits of all foreign delegations,” he said in a written statement, “and have never refused or curtailed one of these visits”.
Even if President Obama manages to transfer all low-risk detainees to other countries, closing Guantanamo won’t be easy. Several dozen prisoners considered too dangerous to release would have to be imprisoned in the US, a step Republicans in Congress adamantly oppose because, they say, it would endanger American lives.
In a press conference this month, the president said he still hoped to strike a deal with the Congress. He added, however, that he reserved the right to move the prisoners to the US under his executive authority.
The Bush administration faced no political opposition on transfers and was able to move 532 detainees out of Guantanamo over six years, 35 per cent of whom returned to the fight, according to US intelligence estimates. The Obama administration has been able to transfer 131 detainees over seven years, 10pc of whom have returned to the fight.
Multiple members of the National Security Council have intervened to demand that the Pentagon turn over Mr Ba Odah’s complete medical file. The Pentagon has held firm, citing patient privacy concerns. “Mr Ba Odah has provided his full, informed consent to the release of his medical records,” his lawyer said.
Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2015