Guantánamo policy is in limbo, waits for Trump

At Guantánamo last week, guards brought a 41-year-old Yemeni “forever prisoner” to a prefab trailer and shackled his ankle to the floor so he could talk by video teleconference to six bureaucrats sitting in a boardroom near the Pentagon.

A legacy of the Obama administration, the Periodic Review Board was meeting to decide whether Omar al-Rammah should be approved for release with security assurances that satisfy the new Secretary of Defense, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis. On the same day, 11 Republican senators urged President Donald Trump to halt these hearings and send more prisoners to Guantánamo.

But until the White House acts, former President Barack Obama’s Jan. 22, 2009, order to close the prison camps remains and the parole-style review boards continue. Yet even if a panel decides that the Yemeni prisoner could be safely resettled in another country, spokesmen for the Defense and State Departments cannot explain how that would happen.

That’s because, the continuation of the hearings notwithstanding, the government has dismantled the teams that negotiated resettlement arrangements for 144 Guantánamo captives to such far-flung locations as Palau, Senegal and the Sultanate of Oman.

Paul Lewis, the former House Armed Services Committee counsel who since 2013 worked as the Pentagon’s special envoy on Guantánamo transfers, emptied his office and left the Department of Defense on Feb. 2. Lee Wolosky, who served as the third State Department Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, left his job at noon on Inauguration Day and has returned to his New York law firm.

Two State Department workers are still at Wolosky’s old office in a form of caretaker status, sometimes more than two if extra help is needed, according to one of the staffers. But the writing was on the wall — actually off of it — even before Trump took office.

On Jan. 3, then President-elect Trump tweeted that transfers should stop. Sometime after that, a State Department staffer removed the sign from the “Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure.”

MORE READING | President-elect Trump: Halt Guantánamo transfers. White House: No.

The holder is empty now outside the office run by Tim Andrews, described as an on-again, off-again 30-year Foreign Service Officer with a background in counterterrorism. Some describe him as Wolosky’s former deputy; others describe him as the acting special envoy. Either way, the previous deputy, Charlie Trumbull, is gone from the office but still represents the State Department at the Periodic Review Board.

There are currently 41 captives at Guantánamo — 10 facing charges; 26 classified as “forever prisoners,” ineligible for release; and five men who have been approved to go with security arrangements. In fact, the State Department secured deals to repatriate an Algerian and Moroccan in the dwindling days of the Obama administration; but former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter declined to release them.

Now career government spokesmen are unable to explain what is being done, if anything, to get those cleared men out of Guantánamo Bay.

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Nor could State or Defense Department spokesmen say if there’s a way to arrange release, rehabilitation or resettlement if any more forever prisoners are cleared by the Periodic Review Board.

“It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the status of internal deliberations, including staffing decisions,” said Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, the Department of Defense spokesman on Guantánamo policy. Sakrisson declined to say if Mattis had acted on leftover Obama-era transfer deals and remarked that if any of the 26 forever prisoners were cleared, “it would be inaccurate to imply that a recommendation for transfer equates to an immediate release from the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”

By law, Congress requires 30 days notice before a captive can leave the island prison; the major would not say whether Mattis had sent any notices to Capitol Hill.

But transfers weren’t the only thing that Wolosky, who had the rank of ambassador, ran as the State Department Special Envoy.

Of near equal importance, he said at a public forum at Fordham Law School this week, was making sure that the transfer arrangements were being honored — work that required a staffer to pick up a phone or jump on an airplane to try to get a resettlement or repatriation on track. Wolosky called it “especially critical in light of the large number of transfers in the past two years.”

People can “agree or disagree” with closure, Wolosky said in New York, but his office painstakingly negotiated “security measures” for each transfer “and those were policed by my office.”

At the height of the work, Wolosky said he had 10 staff members at his State Department office — diplomats, lawyers and national security professionals skilled in negotiating deals and following up, to “make sure that the terms of the transfer are being honored, that the monitoring is being done.”

They looked at “everything from security-related stuff to making sure people were getting into vocational programs, the right vocational programs,” he said. If someone was supposed to get a language course, a job, even making sure medical issues were addressed, his office would step in, “making sure the resettlements were a success.”

The United States didn’t want a freed captive spending hours of idle time at an internet cafe, chatting with fellow captives, or seeking help from a radical mosque.

“If something bad were to happen,” Wolosky warned during the New York forum, “it’s going to be on the Trump administration.”

Former Secretary of State John Kerry was supportive of efforts to close the detention center, and deals to move the men out. His successor, Rex Wayne Tillerson, has yet to offer an opinion.

Meantime, attorney Shane Kadidal argues that an office dedicated to handling releases may not be necessary. The George W. Bush administration released more than 500 captives from Guantánamo without a special envoy. For a time that was part of the portfolio of United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues.

Kadidal’s cleared client, Algerian Sufiyan Barhoumi, was approved for release last summer and U.S. diplomats arranged his repatriation late last year only to have someone at the Pentagon put a hold on it. “It may come down to the Algerian foreign minister calling Tillerson and saying, ‘We want this guy back.’ Does that need a whole infrastructure of people to finish up a partially negotiated transfer? Probably not.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg