BBC Interviews Matthew G. Olsen, the Head of Obama’s Guantánamo Task Force


Matthew J. OlsenOn a car journey to one of the “secure locations” where a Review Panel meets on a weekly basis to examine recommendations made by the Guantánamo Review Task Force — charged with deciding what to do with the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo — the BBC’s Jon Manel spoke to Matthew G. Olsen, the Task Force’s Executive Director. An inter-departmental entity, the Task Force consists of around 60 lawyers, analysts and agents, and includes representatives from the intelligence agencies.

Olsen, who works in the Attorney General’s office, has been a lawyer with the Department of Justice for 12 years. He was made the Executive Director of the Guantánamo Review Task Force on February 20, 2009, a month after President Obama announced the creation of the Task Force in one of the executive orders that also promised the closure of Guantánamo on January 22, 2010 — a promise that is, of course, about to be broken.

Manel began by asking, “So at this meeting this afternoon, you’ll actually decide the fate of one or more of the Guantánamo detainees, will you?”

“That’s correct,” Olsen replied. “We have a meeting every Wednesday. We review the cases of the detainees at Guantánamo and try to reach decisions about the appropriate disposition of each detainee. We look at everything that we’re able to obtain that is in the government’s possession. And I should say that one of our initial challenges was collecting all that information.”

That information was, as I explained in an article last February, scattered throughout various departments and agencies, although Olsen neglected to tell Manel that often there was very little information at all, and that much of it had been extracted under dubious circumstances from either the prisoners themselves or from their fellow inmates.

Olsen continued: “We actually established a secure network, a database status only accessible to our task force out at our government building. We look at the questions of transfer and we look at the questions involving the possible prosecution of detainees.”

After Manel asked if it was “a case of determining their guilt or innocence,” Olsen replied, “It is more nuanced than that. What we are looking at is, ‘Can this person be safely transferred out of the United States?’ [and] ‘Can they be transferred to a country that will be able to implement adequate mitigation measures to address any threat the detainee may pose?’ It’s a judgment on risk. And then with respect to prosecution, there’s the judgment on ‘Is there sufficient admissible evidence to pursue a prosecution?’”

As Manel explained, the Review Panel, which is made up of senior officials from several US government departments, “has to make unanimous decisions,” and if the panel fails to come to a conclusion, cases are considered at “cabinet level.”

At this point in the conversation, as Olsen’s car neared the venue for the meeting, Manel had to leave, as arranged beforehand. “It’s classified,” Olsen explained. “The meeting itself is a government deliberation.”

The next day, the two men met up again, and Olsen told Manel, “We met for over three hours. We were able to resolve a significant number of cases.” Manel asked if these cases were “resolved for trial or release,” and Olsen replied, “We had a mix of cases yesterday — that’s about as much as I can say. In some instances we weren’t able to resolve [the cases]. We talk about a case but we identify an issue or a question that we want to go find out the answer to. And then we just postpone those cases for a week.”

As Manel described it, “Some of the most difficult dilemmas have been about whether to return Guantánamo prisoners to Yemen,” because of the security situation, and the hysteria that greeted the news that two Saudi prisoners, released by the Bush administration, had assumed key positions in an al-Qaeda-inspired group in Yemen.

The weekend before Christmas — “following months of deliberations,” as Manel described it — six men were sent back to Yemen from Guantánamo, but just days later, the revelation that Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the failed Nigerian plane bomber, had reportedly trained in Yemen, derailed plans to repatriate any more Yemenis, as the Obama administration capitulated to criticism.

Olsen told Manel, “The situation with Yemen has been a situation that we’ve been aware of and had access to intelligence information from the outset of our process.” When asked if sending prisoners back was “a mistake,” he replied, “I’m not going to say whether it was a mistake or not … I think that we are making the best possible judgments we can make based on a great deal of information. There’s no precedent for what we’ve done in terms of collecting this information in one place. It didn’t exist in one place before we started this process.”

He added, “No decision about any of these detainees is without some risk. We need to be clear about the fact that we’re making predicted judgments at some level about whether somebody is going to pose a risk to us in the future if they are released. But I do think that what we are doing is bringing to bear the right people and the right approach to make those decisions in the best possible way.”

In December, the Task Force had approved the transfer of 116 prisoners. 42 men were released in Obama’s first year, although some were cleared by the courts, after judges granted their habeas corpus petitions — a process that neither Manel nor Olsen touched upon, even though it is more transparent than the Task Force’s deliberations, has the backing of the Supreme Court, and has, to date, led to 32 out of 41 victories for the prisoners, on the basis that the evidence required to prove that they were connected to al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban was either unreliable or non-existent. Manel also noted that “Around 40 are on a list to be tried, either in federal courts or revamped military commissions.”

Even though President Obama’s deadline for the closure of Guantánamo is about to be missed, Olsen insisted that imposing the deadline had been “vital,” telling Manel, “Having that one year deadline was absolutely critical for us. We needed to have a deadline because we are making difficult decisions that I think would be very hard to make in the absence of a date.”

Jon Manel’s interview was featured in “Closing Guantánamo,” which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 12. The show is repeated on January 17 at 1700 GMT, and can also be heard via the BBC iPlayer or by downloading the podcast.

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 (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

2 Responses

  1. Anna says...

    The French have the expression ‘parler pour ne rien dire’, which means as much as ‘to talk in order to say nothing’. It would seem that Mr Olsen is a master in this field, for he managed not to convey anything concrete whatsoever concerning the fate of the remaining prisoners. His open-ended evasiveness however, does suggest that their future will continue to depend on ad-hoc expedience rather than objective lawful criteria.

  2. eadams333 says...

    I do not believe a word that Olson says. He is obvioiusly operating under the Administration and State Department wings on a flight to lawless oblivion!

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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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