WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration was so intent on keeping Guantánamo detainees off U.S. soil and away from U.S. courts that it secretly tried to negotiate deals with Latin American countries to provide life-saving medical procedures rather than fly ill terrorist suspects to the U.S. for treatment, a recently released State Department cable shows.
The U.S. offered to transport, guard and pay for medical procedures for any captive the Pentagon couldnt treat at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba, according to the cable, which was made public by the WikiLeaks website. One by one, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Mexico declined.
The secret effort is spelled out in a Sept. 17, 2007, cable from then assistant secretary of state Thomas Shannon to the U.S. embassies in those four countries. Shannon is now the U.S. ambassador in Brazil.
At the time, the Defense Department was holding about 330 captives at Guantánamo, not quite twice the number that are there today. They included alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and two other men whom the CIA waterboarded at its secret prison sites.
The cable, which WikiLeaks posted on its website March 14, draws back the curtain on contingency planning at Guantánamo, but also contradicts something the prison camps hospital staff has been telling visitors for years that the U.S. can dispatch any specialist necessary to make sure the captives in Cuba get first-class treatment.
Detainees receive state-of-the-art medical care at Guantánamo for routine, and many non-routine, medical problems. There are, however, limits to the care that DOD can provide at Guantánamo, Shannon said in the cable, referring to the Department of Defense.
The cable didnt give examples of those limits. But it sought partner countries to commit to a standby arrangement to provide life-saving procedures on a humanitarian basis.
Its unclear what prompted the effort. The cable said then Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte had approved making the request at the behest of then Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, who at the time oversaw Guantánamo operations.
Negroponte said Wednesday that he had no recollection of the request but that it would have been unrealistic to expect the Latin American nations to agree to it, because anything to do with Guantánamo was always so politically controversial for any of these countries. England didnt respond to a request for comment.
Earlier that year, a captive had managed to commit suicide, according to the military, inside a maximum-security lockup. Two medical emergencies also tested Guantánamos medical services in 2006: Two captives overdosed on other prisoners drugs theyd secretly hoarded, and then three men were found hanged in their common cellblock before dawn one Saturday.
In 2007, lawyers for Guantánamos eldest detainee, former U.S. resident Saifullah Paracha, who Pentagon officials said was a key al Qaeda insider, also challenged the militarys plans to conduct a heart catheterization procedure at the base.
Paracha, now 63 and still suffering from a chronic heart condition, wanted to be taken to the U.S. or his native Pakistan for the catheterization. He refused to undergo the procedure at the base, even after the Pentagon airlifted a surgical suite and special equipment to the base to undertake the procedure.