Foreign Affairs Chair: Did Administration Mislead About Sending Gitmo Detainees to Countries That Could Handle Them?

By Patrick Goodenough | May 18, 2016 | 5:01am EDT
A March 2010 file photo of the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

( – House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce on Tuesday questioned the truth of administration assertions that Guantanamo Bay detainees have never been knowingly transferred to countries not equipped to minimize the risk that they’ll return to terrorism.

In letters to Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Royce (R-Calif.) cited recent testimony by two key officials, saying it appeared to conflict with classified reports submitted to Congress in line with U.S. law.

Special envoys for Guantanamo closure Paul Lewis (Defense Department) and Lee Wolosky (State Department) were asked during a March 23 committee hearing whether a Guantanamo detainee had ever knowingly been sent “to a country that did not exhibit the ability to substantially mitigate the risk [of recidivism] by maintaining control of that individual.”

Lewis replied “no” and Wolosky said that, while he could not speak for the previous administration, he was unaware of any such case.

But Royce said their replies do not comport with information in classified reports submitted by the Pentagon to Congress in May 2013, July 2014 and August 2015.

Those reports, he wrote in the letters, were “riddled with derogatory assessments of some of the countries to which the Bush and Obama administrations have transferred detainees.  In many cases, these intelligence assessments preceded the transfer of individuals to these same countries.”

“Information supplied by the administration makes clear that these governments lack core competency, legal frameworks, and critical resources – something for which promises and bilateral agreements could never compensate.”

Royce said it was hard to believe that Lewis and Wolosky, given their roles, were unaware of the information in those reports before they appeared before the committee.

He said many members worried that “in the rush to close this facility, the administration is making agreements with countries that are ill-equipped to prevent recidivism. Worse yet, it may be attempting to cover up this irresponsible policy.”

He asked Kerry and Carter to explain – by May 27 – why the envoys’ testimony was inconsistent with the earlier Pentagon reports; and also to provide in unclassified form a list of countries being considered for future transfers.

According to the latest congressionally-mandated report by the Director of National Intelligence, 17.5 percent (118 of 676) of former Guantanamo detainees were “confirmed” to have re-engaged in terrorism after leaving the facility, and another 12.7 percent (86 of 676) were “suspected” to have done so.

Some former detainees have been responsible for the deaths of Americans, Lewis acknowledged during the March hearing.

The U.S. Naval station in Cuba, leased by the U.S. under a 1903 treaty, has housed a detention center for terrorist suspects since shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks.

President Obama came into office in 2009 pledging to close the facility, and last February unveiled a new plan designed to achieve that goal before the end of his term.

During the March committee hearing, Lewis reported that of nearly 800 detainees held since the center opened, more than 85 percent have been transferred to foreign countries, including more than 500 by the Bush administration.

Wolosky said that of 91 detainees still there, 36 have been approved for transfer, 10 were in “some stage of the military commission process, either facing charges or serving sentences,” and the remainder “are neither approved for transfer nor currently facing charges.”

Since 2009 a total of 27 countries have accepted Guantanamo detainees who were not their own citizens. They include Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Palau and Uruguay.

Thirteen countries have accepted Guantanamo Bay detainees who were their own citizens, including Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria, Kuwait and Mauritania.

Lewis in his testimony cited retired military leaders as characterizing the closure of the detention center as “the single most important counter terrorism effort the United States can undertake.”

Royce dismissed as “flimsy” the administration’s claim that it was closing the facility because its existence was a recruitment tool for terrorists.

“I don’t think that if you’re standing in line in Raqqa to recruit into ISIS you say, ‘Oh, Guantanamo Bay is going to be closed – no need to enlist here,’” he said.

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