Guantánamo Envoy: US Should Have Taken Cleared Prisoners; Some Should Never Have Been Held

17.9.09

Daniel Fried, the US Special Envoy on GuantanamoIn an exclusive interview with the BBC, Daniel Fried came across as an eminently reasonable man placed in a disturbingly unreasonable position by his bosses. A senior diplomat, who was the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs for four years, Fried was plucked from his job in March 2009 to become the Obama administration’s Special Envoy to Guantánamo, serving as a member of the interagency Task Force charged with reviewing the cases of the remaining Guantánamo prisoners, and responsible, primarily, for finding countries to accept dozens of prisoners who have been cleared for release, either by the Task Force, often based on decisions already taken by Bush-era military review boards, or by the courts, after successful habeas corpus petitions.

These are men who cannot be returned to their home countries because of fears that they will face torture, or further arbitrary imprisonment, on their return, although Fried is also responsible for trying to broker a deal with Yemen, whose nationals make up around 40 percent of the remaining 225 prisoners. Fried spoke mainly to the BBC about negotiations with Europe, but it is apparent that attempts to overcome the long-standing failure to secure a deal with the Yemeni government remains one of the most difficult tasks that he faces.

In an interview for Radio 4′s Today program, which was partly filmed and televised on BBC News, Fried gave Jon Manel a largely spin-free account of the problems he faces, some of which have been exacerbated by the US government’s unwillingness — or inability — to resettle some cleared prisoners on the US mainland.

To my mind, President Obama missed a golden opportunity to bring 17 prisoners to the US in his early days in office. These men, the Uighurs (Muslims who had fled oppression in China’s Xinjiang province, and who were sold to US forces after being betrayed by Pakistani villagers, following their flight from Afghanistan) had been cleared of any involvement with al-Qaeda, the Taliban or any form of international terrorism by the Bush administration and by the US courts, but the President wavered, allowing Guantánamo’s supporters in Congress (scaremongers inspired by the hateful and false rhetoric of former Vice President Dick Cheney) to gain the upper hand, eventually persuading Congress to pass legislation blocking the transfer of any cleared prisoners to the US mainland.

Fried began by explaining that his job was “miserable,” because he was “cleaning up a problem” inherited from the Bush administration, which had nothing to do with advancing any positive aspects of US policy. “It’s not like we’re advancing liberty or making peace,” he said. He added that working out what to do with the remaining prisoners is “a huge problem and a complicated one,” but according to Manel, although he said that he would “not criticize Congress,” he stated, unambiguously, “It is fair to say, as just an objective statement, that the US could resettle more detainees [worldwide], had we been willing to take in some.”

The interview was also notable for the following frank exchange about the perception of the remaining prisoners as “the worst of the worst,” which included, I believe, the first public admission, by a senior Obama administration official, that some of the prisoners were nothing more than low-level Taliban recruits, in an inter-Muslim civil war (with the Northern Alliance) that preceded the 9/11 attacks and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or international terrorism, and that they should not have been in Guantánamo for the last seven years:

Daniel Fried: The detainees in Guantánamo run a spectrum. Some really are awful. Some qualify as “the worst of the worst,” and we’re going to put those on trial. Some, frankly, should not have been in Guantánamo for the past seven years.

Jon Manel: So they were innocent?

Daniel Fried: Innocent, guilt … I look at their files and some of them seem relatively benign, and I have in mind the Uighurs, in particular, but others …

Jon Manel: They’re the minority from China …

Daniel Fried: That’s right, the Uighur minority from China, but if I had to describe — if there’s such a thing as an average Guantánamo detainee, it’s someone who was a volunteer, a low-level trainee or a very low-level fighter in a very bad cause, but not a hardened terrorist, not an organizer. Now it is those people whom we’re asking Europeans to take a look at, and each government has to evaluate the background of each individual and make a decision.

Despite his criticism of the implications of the failure to accept any cleared prisoners into the United States, Fried did make the point that “parliamentarians in Europe” — as well as the US – “have raised questions about security, and we have to respect those opinions,” although he was also concerned to publicize the successful resettlement of four of the Uighurs in Bermuda (in June), even though it had apparently brought him into conflict with the British government, because, as the BBC described it, “Bermuda is a British overseas territory and Britain was not informed until the last minute.”

“The British government, it is fair to say, cannot be considered part of the deal. This was worked out between the Americans and the Bermudans,” Fried told Manel, adding, “I will say that I’ve been admonished by the British government in very clear terms.” He insisted, however, that the deal had been successful. “We are very grateful to the Bermudan government and the behavior of the four Uighurs has been exemplary, which really bolsters our contention that they were not any kind of threat,” he said, adding, “These are four people who are enjoying freedom who would otherwise be in Guantánamo.”

This was an important point to make, although I maintain that the Uighurs’ “exemplary” behavior, which “bolsters” the government’s “contention that they were not any kind of threat,” would have had a far more powerful impact if it had happened in Washington D.C., where American citizens would have been able to appreciate, first-hand, that the Uighurs are not, and have never been terrorists.

In conclusion, Fried told Manel that he was “confident” that the President’s January deadline for closing Guantánamo would be met, although he could not guarantee it. “President Obama’s timetable is what we’ve got,” he said, “we don’t have Plan Bs, we’re looking at that timetable. We’ve got a lot of work to do, we need help getting this done, and we’re going to be working hard at it. But you’re not going to have Guantánamo II. Whatever solution we come up with, it will be one based firmly on the rule of law and transparency.”

Fried’s interview coincided with an announcement that Hungary is preparing to take a cleared prisoner from Guantánamo, to add to those already accepted by the UK (Binyam Mohamed, a British resident, in February), France (Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian, in May), and Portugal (Mohammed al-Tumani and Moammar Dokhan, both Syrians, last month). Other countries who have agreed to take cleared prisoners are Belgium, Ireland, Italy (although with some disturbing conditions), and Spain, and discussions are apparently ongoing with both Lithuania and Switzerland.

Note: A short video of the BBC interview (featuring the exchange reproduced above) is available here.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, and if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published on the Huffington Post. Cross-posted on Common Dreams.

15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    So over on the Huffington Post, a reader named AudrieTahoma attempted to defend the use of torture:

    Although I’m sure that there are others that would disagree with me, I believe that in some cases a place like Guantanamo Bay is needed. The things that went down there are horrible and disgusting, but in a time of war, which we have found ourselves in for the past eight years, there is a call for means that might not always be deemed “moral”. Torture has been around for as long as there has been conflict, and I don’t think that there is going to be a change in that, no matter how hard we try. I know the information they retrieve cannot always be labeled as the truth, but how can one be sure that another person is telling the truth in the first place? It’s as effective as any other method of divulging information.

    As far as finding places out of country to take these prisoners…why can’t we bring them into the states? I don’t understand, aren’t they our prisoners? Shouldn’t we be the ones to be responsible for them instead of trying to pawn them off on some European country?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    This prompted the following reply from the ever dependable arcticedriver:

    I think this comment repeats a common misconception — that the current struggle with terrorist groups is so dangerous that democratic countries must sacrifice the rule of law. This comment seems to repeat the notion that abandoning the rule of law, the principle of the presumption of innocence, and the USA’s international treaty obligations, will make the public less safe.

    But the public record demonstrates that this notion couldn’t be more wrong.

    The presumption of innocence does not only protect suspects. It protects the general public because it forces those who hold suspects to perform sanity checking, and make sure there is good reason to believe those being held are actually those who pose a risk.

    Abandoning fact checking and sanity checking cost Iraq hundreds of thousands of lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars in war damage. It cost the USA the lives of 5 thousand brave GIs, and the hundreds of billions spent on the Iraq war so far and hundreds of billions more, when one counts on the lost productivity of those brave GIs left with wounds that will never heal. The single most important trigger for that war was the false confession forced from Ibn Al Sheikh Al Libi. The trust placed in his false confessions is the best example of the danger of abandoning sanity checking.

    Real experts, not those who take their lessons from Jack Bauer, have always recognized that organized, sober, professional, humane, rapport-building interrogations are the only reliable kinds of interrogation.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    And pjburke wrote:

    You may not realize it — may even deny it — but you are laying out a position which starts with the built-in presumption that not all human beings possess human dignity which need even be acknowledged, let alone respected.

    That is the starting point which is required in order to condone and accept torture.

    It is a utilitarian “ends justifies means” position, and leads straight to wholesale, pervasive, society-wide depravity… where the likes of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the numerous “black site” prisons of the CIA, and Bagram prison in Afghanistan become the feeder-site training grounds of our own domestic county jails, state prisons, federal prisons, and police forces.

    Torture is not — nor has it ever been — about eliciting information… of any kind. That is the useful myth peddled to the (mostly) well-meaning but not very well-informed General Public who, seeing no threat to themselves and who are easily led to believe that the threat is directed only at some Despicable Other, readily accepts that myth.

    What history has shown over and over again, however, is that torture always comes home. Soldiers become police officers and corrections officers — also politicians, prosecutors, and judges — and do use (or approve) those very same torture techniques on pre-trial suspects in order obtain confessions — a much easier path to conviction than doing actual criminal investigation. They do use them on prisoners to exert control and command compliance… and they also use torture just for sadistic sport.

    Torture does work… but only as a tool to terrorize and subjugate a population to authoritarian control. It is the tool of the Police State. All those who support torture by our soldiers today are unwittingly asking for an authoritarian police state within ten years time.

  4. the talking dog says...

    My, my. First, Ambassador Fried is indeed, in an unenviable position, thanks to the Obama Administration’s political cowardice and fecklessness in the early days, when it dithered on this instead of just taking charge. The Obama Administration could have literally released the Uighurs per Judge Urbina’s court order and been done with it, and then moved the entire operation to American soil (say, a brig or stockade somewhere) and “game over, GTMO closed” before anyone can say “boo”. But then, it didn’t, and the rest is… history, or at least where we are now.

    As to torture, I’d really never even get started on the “is it effective” argument; the fact that no one can point to an actual “ticking time bomb scenario” in non-fiction circumstances is neither here nor there; the instant one does, immediately, we will be told by torture-advocates (amateurs all, btw, as no professional interrogator would ever want to go near torture) the “moral calculus” suddenly changes… and my point is “THE HELL IT DOES.”

    Civilization has agreed on very, very few things, but two of them are that torture and genocide are ALWAYS WRONG. ALWAYS. No exceptions, just because the Fox network runs a show where in its fictional context torture is effective (oh hell, man, its FREAKING AWESOME! WOLVERINES!) Wait… where was I… oh yes…

    Just replace the word “torture” with “genocide”… such as “We must reserve the right to engage in ____ in certain circumstances where the lives of thousands might be on the line if we don’t get immediate information.” Well, I respectfully submit that genocide has proven much more effective than torture ever has in achieving political goals… we can point to the case of the Syrian massacre of the town of Hama (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hama_massacre) which effectively ended much internal terrorism inside of Syria… sure, between 7,000 and 40,000 people were killed, but then “thousands more were saved” from “the ravages of terrorism.”

    See how easy it is? I mean, there are those who advocate dropping nuclear bombs on the Middle East (somehow not vaporizing Israel in the process… see above re “amateurs”)…. I assure you, such wholesale homicide (like that at Hama) would doubtless be far more effective at stamping out terrorism than “torture” ever would be… and yet, somehow, we at least for the moment, still acknowledge that such tactics are “wrong” (well, many of us do, anyway).

    I’m kind of tired of the premise that legal (and moral) restraints on conduct are somehow “quaint” or “obsolete” simply because laws and practices that are longstanding military doctrine have proven inconvenient policy to the former Bush Administration amateurs… the laws were just fine; it was just that administering them was put into the hands of criminals, criminals whose handiwork Ambassador Fried finds himself stuck with, and criminals whose successor is more inclined to emulate than to investigate.

    This would all be hilariously funny… if any of it were funny.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    And I couldn’t help thinking, while reading that, TD, that “we” have “saved” countless Iraqis and Afghans from terrorism and tyranny — by killing them with our bombs.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Over on Common Dreams, Bill from Saginaw wrote:

    “It’s not like we’re advancing liberty or making peace,” according to Mr. Fried, the man in charge of the “miserable” task of “cleaning up a problem” inherited from the Bush administration, by releasing or relocating hundreds of Muslim detainees swept up with great fanfare during the neocons’ seven-year global war on terror — all so that the infamous US military/CIA interrogation facility at Guantanamo can be closed.

    I beg to differ. This is very much about advancing liberty and making peace.

    If the folks in charge of carrying out this simple campaign promise of President Obama don’t recognize the significance of restoring respect for the rule of law and international human rights guarantees, this mindset is a big part of the problem now needlessly befuddling the DC beltway Democratic leadership.

    It was neocon true believers like former vice president Dick Cheney and Senator Pat Roberts who created the Gitmo/Abu Ghraib black site gulag, largely for ideological hype and domestic partisan gain. Now, the same spinmeisters seek to Willie Horton themselves out of accountability for potential escapee/boogeyman blowback which may (or may not) loom ominously on the horizon.

    If the DLC can’t figure out how to counter this fear mongering shell game, then it’s time for the White House to change not only tacticians, but also the whole frame of reference.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    rfloh wrote:

    Indeed. The issue of detention without trial goes to the very heart of concepts of liberty and human rights.

    The concept of liberty loses any meaning if detention without trial is acceptable. There can be no liberty if some authority can just decide to throw someone in a gulag arbitrarily.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    And jlocke123 wrote:

    -”Some really are awful. Some qualify as “the worst of the worst,”

    “worst of the worst”? Where have we heard that before? Can Obama point to any convictions, of these prisoners, in REAL courts? No. Outside America, we have a saying: “innocent until proven guilty”. But of course a “constitutional law professor” should know that.

  9. Guantánamo Envoy: US Should Have Taken Cleared Prisoners; Some … | Job Fair News says...

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  10. Finding New Homes For 44 Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] the United States (which fuels a reluctance to help in European countries, as Fried acknowledged in a recent interview with the BBC), there are disturbing signs that this reticence on the part of the administration to state openly [...]

  11. Will The Maldives Take Three Guantánamo Prisoners? « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] news, the US Embassy in Sofia told AFP on Friday that “US Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure Daniel Fried visited Bulgaria from December 2-3 and met with Bulgarian officials,” who have been asked to [...]

  12. Obama’s Failure on Guantanamo says...

    [...] a law preventing any cleared prisoner being re-housed in the United States), but also made it difficult for America’s allies in Europe to take any of the dozens of cleared men — from Algeria, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, as [...]

  13. Rubbing Salt in Guantanamo’s Wounds: Task Force Announces Indefinite Detentions | themcglynn.com/theliberal.net says...

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  14. More Dark Truths From Guantanamo as Five Innocent Men Released « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] The fact that Georgia – the former Soviet satellite in the Caucasus – is the new home of three of these men and not the US, demonstrates another obstacle to the men’s release. Had President Obama acted decisively last April, two Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, seized by mistake in December 2001) would have been freed in the US and others would undoubtedly have followed. However, when the president bowed to pressure from Republican critics and turned down a plan put forward by White House Counsel Greg Craig and backed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which involved bringing the two men to live in the US, the job of Obama’s Special Envoy Daniel Fried, who was charged with finding new homes for dozens of cleared prisoners from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, was made considerably more difficult. [...]

  15. No Escape from Guantanamo: Uighurs Lose Again in US Court « EUROPE TURKMEN FRIENDSHIPS says...

    [...] ought to be deeply ashamed. In this whole sordid story, only Special Envoy Daniel Fried, who has worked tirelessly to find new homes for the men, and former White House Counsel Greg Craig, who came close to [...]

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