Stage not yet set for more Guantánamo detainee releases

Guards escort a detainee from his cell in Camp 5, Guantánamo’s maximum-security lockup for low-value detainees in this Oct. 18, 2011 photo released by the prison.
Guards escort a detainee from his cell in Camp 5, Guantánamo’s maximum-security lockup for low-value detainees in this Oct. 18, 2011 photo released by the prison. US NAVY

While some in the Obama administration are eager to resume transfers of detainees from Guantánamo this summer, none of the mechanisms are yet in place to move even one of the 122 captives now held at the detention center in southeast Cuba, U.S. officials say.

As of Thursday, Congress had received no 30-day transfer notices, a statutory prerequisite, according to three sources with firsthand knowledge of the process. Meantime, the House Armed Services Committee chairman is championing a U.S. Southern Command request for a $76 million housing complex for prison guards and other staff that demonstrates Congress is planning for the prison after President Barack Obama leaves office.

Lack of notice is just one of several key hurdles to resuming transfers that came to a standstill in the final days of Chuck Hagel’s tenure as secretary of defense, according to several U.S. administration officials who reacted with surprise to a Washington Post report Wednesday that predicted as many as 10 detainees could be gone by June.

Obama ignored the congressional notice requirement just once, on May 31, to swap five Taliban captives for prisoner-of-war Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, now accused of being a deserter in Afghanistan. In August, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the White House broke the law. While administration officials still argue that Obama had commander-in-chief authority to do it, they say they will provide notice of future transfers.

And, so, the pace of progress does not support the reported predictions of 10 captives departing in June from the 122 war on terror prisoners, 57 of them approved for release with security assurances.

▪ Not a single transfer packet has made its way through the Pentagon bureaucracy to the desk of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

▪ Carter, who replaced Hagel Feb. 17, has to personally approve each transfer — and has yet to see his first. He has not been particularly outspoken on Guantánamo transfers. At his confirmation hearing in February, he told Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., an opponent of closure, that he would not succumb to administration pressure to speed up transfers.

▪ One of the first proposed transfers Carter may see is that of a Mauritanian, Ahmed Ould Abd al-Aziz, 45. Although approved for repatriation since 2009, Hagel pointedly refused to release Aziz to his own nation. Just recently, according to a source, the detention center notified the Pentagon that Aziz had declared that he intended to join ISIS once repatriated. Advocates of his transfer argue that menacing mouthiness should not factor in whether a detainee gets out of Guantánamo.

At the prison Thursday, spokesman Navy Capt. Tom Gresback said the detention center doesn’t decide “which, where or when detainees are transferred.” He would neither confirm nor deny that a cleared detainee spoke of joining ISIS.

Another potentially pending transfer — that of a Saudi citizen and former British resident, Shaker Aamer, 48 — has yet to clear a Principals Committee of Cabinet-level national security and intelligence secretaries, a hurdle that would come before it reaches Carter for his signature.

A 2009 Obama Task Force approved Aamer for repatriation to his native Saudi Arabia, but his case has become a cause in some portions of London, where his wife and four children live. He has resisted repatriation, according to administration officials, and instead wants to rejoin his family in the United Kingdom, which has repeatedly requested his release to its custody.

Only once the Principals Committee agrees to change his status from eligible for Saudi repatriation to approved for UK resettlement could Carter then evaluate whether to sign off on it, according to people familiar with the process.

The last prisoners to leave Guantánamo did so Jan. 14, four Yemenis to Oman and another to Estonia.

Some administration officials are impatient to resume the transfers, in part, because military commanders have argued that a prolonged standstill stokes tension at the prison in Cuba, and participation in the long-running prison hunger strike. The military refuses to say how many captives are currently on hunger strike.

One detainee, Hassan bin Attash, told his lawyer David Remes on April 15 that he counted 14 detainees as being tube-fed daily, including one in the prison hospital. Bin Attash specifically provided the detainee numbers of eight of them, five of whom are cleared for release.

If true, about 11.5 percent of the captives are on hunger strike. The prison spokesman said “a very small percentage of the population” refuses to eat, and would not characterize the situation as worsening or improving.

“Just as we do not disclose the number of detainees who are on long-term nonreligious fasts,” said Gresback, “we will not provide a trend line.”

Meantime, some are planning for the prison’s long-term future.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, included $76 million in his proposed National Defense Authorization Act for new prison staff housing, plucked from a wish list provided to the committee by the U.S. Southern Command’s Marine Gen. John F. Kelly.

Neither Southcom nor the Pentagon would provide details of how many members of the 2,000-plus temporary Guantánamo prison staff would live in the housing area that the military calls barracks and a Capitol Hill staffer described as “a big dorm.”

Nor would they say how quickly it could be built, and if it could be fast-tracked in time for troops before Obama leaves office.

Prison staff, both troops and contractors, churn through the base without family on mostly 9- to 12-month assignments. Many live in a sprawling trailer park similar to temporary housing built at other U.S. overseas outposts. But a Southcom statement by Army Col. Lisa Garcia said Kelly believes the housing would improve prison troop morale and have utility on the remote outpost after the prison is closed. She would not elaborate.

Defense Department budget crunchers and the White House have at least twice rejected Kelly’s new prison housing proposal, and also vetoed a request to build a new secret $69 million prison for 15 former CIA captives at Guantánamo.

But, Defense and Capitol Hill sources said, Thornberry recently invited all the four-star officers who lead the military’s regional commands to provide him with a list of funding requests that had been rejected. Only Kelly forwarded his “unfunded requirements.”

“It’s useful for us to know what made the president’s budget, and what was cut,” said a Hill staffer, to evaluate “what kind of risks will be absorbed.”

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