Guantánamo ‘closers’ say Bush-era releases killed Americans in Afghanistan

The Obama administration envoys for the closure of Guantánamo prison — the Pentagon’s Paul Lewis, left, and the State Department’s Lee Wolosky — testify before the House Foreign Relations Committee, Thursday, July 7, 2016.
The Obama administration envoys for the closure of Guantánamo prison — the Pentagon’s Paul Lewis, left, and the State Department’s Lee Wolosky — testify before the House Foreign Relations Committee, Thursday, July 7, 2016. Screen grab from House Foreign Relations Committee’s video stream

The Obama administration’s two envoys for the closure of the Guantánamo prison on Thursday defended the ongoing policy of releasing detainees to other countries, saying former detainees who went on to kill Americans were freed by the Bush administration.

One envoy, the Pentagon’s Paul Lewis, told skeptical members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the current standard is “more rigorous and intensive” than the process that released more than 520 Guantánamo detainees when George W. Bush was president.

President Barack Obama’s administration has sent 159 detainees to other nations, said State Department envoy Lee Wolosky, and “we intend to continue essentially the policy of the previous administration to transfer detainees that we conclude may be safely and responsibly transferred outside the custody of the United States in accordance with applicable law.”

As of Thursday, the Pentagon had 79 captives at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, 29 of them approved for release to other countries with security assurances that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

Committee members expressed particular dismay at the apparent disappearance of a Syrian captive from Uruguay, Abu Wa’el Dhiab. The Washington Post reported he may be in Brazil, and some members cast it as a frightening transfer failure ahead of the Summer Olympics.

“It appears that the assurances that you got from Uruguay didn’t account for anything,” said Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California, the committee chairman. “This fellow Jihad Dhiab walked right out of Uruguay. We have no idea where he is. If that country is telling you it won’t prevent their travel, we had better listen.”

Wolosky replied that Dhiab’s December 2014 transfer with five other cleared, never-charged captives was problematic “from the moment he landed in Uruguay.” The former prison hunger striker sought a meeting with the country’s foreign minister and at one point went to Argentina.

Dhiab had at first agreed to participate in a two-year resettlement program, said Wolosky, but “we never represented to this committee that there was a travel prohibition.”

Wolosky added that men were not sent to Uruguay for continuing detention. “They weren’t convicted of crimes. When we transfer them to foreign countries, we transfer them subject to security assurances such as travel restrictions.”

“The fact is, the standard is not elimination of risk,” he said. “It is mitigation risk.”

The last time the committee met the two men, Lewis said broadly that former detainees were blamed for American deaths. Thursday, both men blamed the casualties on detainees let go during the Bush years.

“The assessment of the intelligence community is that no detainees released since 2009 during this administration are responsible for the deaths of Americans,” Wolosky said in response to a question.

California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa responded with incredulity: “So your public statement is that no detainees released by this administration have killed Americans on the battlefield as of today.”

Wolosky: “Correct.”

Issa: “OK. I just want to make sure I have it on the record because I don’t believe it. But you can say it, and you’re under oath and I believe it, that you believe it.”

Later, Arizona Republican Rep. Matt Salmon announced that, in a communication to Congress, Lewis said that up to 14 former detainees released by the Bush administration killed a number of Americans in Afghanistan.

The Congressman asked Lewis how many Americans were killed, and sought their names, hometowns, genders and whether all were U.S. military service members.

“Fourteen,” Lewis replied, and said either he or the intelligence community could furnish the details. “Many of the incidents were in large-scale firefights in a war zone,” he also said. “So we can’t always distinguish whether Americans were killed by former detainees or other participants.”

The Pentagon clarified on Friday that Lewis wasn’t referring to the number of dead Americans when he answered the question. “Mr. Lewis was referring to the number of former detainees involved in killing Americans, not the number of Americans killed,” said Army Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson. “Mr. Lewis also clarified his response with the committee.”

The two so-called “closers” repeatedly asked to meet the lawmakers in a closed session to discuss specific transfer arrangements and intelligence matters.

Wolosky specifically referred to a closed session a question from Republican Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen of Florida on what money or other assistance the United States paid Uruguay or other nations that take in cleared Guantánamo detainees for the Obama administration. He called the assistance “de minimis.”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg