Cliff Sloan, Former Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, On Why Cleared Prisoners, Including Shaker Aamer, Must Be Freed


Campaigners with Witness Against Torture show their support for Shaker Aamer in an action outside the British Embassy in Washington D.C. in January 2015.Last Wednesday, the Washington Post reawakened discussions about the future of Guantánamo, in an article entitled “Facing threat in Congress, Pentagon races to resettle Guantánamo inmates.” As I described it in my analysis of the article, the Post aired “the suggestion … that all the men approved for release in Guantánamo — 57 out of the 122 men still held — will be freed by the end of the year, and, if Congress proves obstructive, the Obama administration might close the facility before the end of Obama’s presidency by unilaterally moving the remaining prisoners to the US mainland.”

I was at pains to point out that, “[r]ealistically … it might be wisest to view these suggestions as the administration stating its best-case scenario,” but I found it convincing that, “[a]s a first step, officials plan to send up to 10 prisoners overseas, possibly in June,” and that one of these prisoners is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, and I was reassured when a journalist friend explained that a source within the administration had told her that there was “cautious optimism” that these releases will indeed take place.

Following up on the story, Ian Woods of Sky News interviewed Cliff Sloan, the former State Department envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, who was appointed by President Obama in 2013. A veteran diplomat, Sloan left his job at the end of last year, but has continued to discuss Guantánamo, and the need for the prison’s closure, ever since. See his op-ed in the New York Times in January, for example.

Below is the transcript of Ian Woods’ interview with Cliff Sloan, in which he very openly talked about the necessity for men approved for release to be freed, and how this evidently includes Shaker Aamer.

Cliff Sloan: It [the continued existence of the Guantánamo prison] frays our alliances with close allies on counter-terrorism, it’s wildly expensive and one thing that is very important, of the 122 individuals at Guantánamo right now, 57 have been approved for transfer after a very rigorous process, and those 57 should be moved absolutely as soon as possible for all the reasons on moving forward on closing Guantánamo, and in fairness to those individuals.

Ian Woods: We are talking about people who’ve been approved for a number of years; in Shaker Aamer’s case it’s 2007 and 2009. What’s the hold-up?

Cliff Sloan: I can’t speak about individual cases, but I will say for those approved for transfer, for every individual who is approved for transfer, I am absolutely of the view that they should be moved with urgency. They should be moved just as promptly as possible. We are talking about people who have been at Guantánamo for 12 or 13 years, people who have been approved for transfer for more than five years and they should not be having to spend a day longer than necessary in Guantánamo.

Ian Woods: If the person wants to go, if a country is willing to accept that person, what can the hold-up be?

Cliff Sloan: Well, again, I can’t get into specifics, there is an extensive process within the US government, but I would just say from our own perspective I very strongly believe that, if he has been approved for transfer, and you have a country  that is willing to accept the person in whom the US government has confidence about their security capabilities, and there’s not an issue about humane treatment of the individual, then there is no sound reason for delay.

Ian Woods: So if that person was going back to the United Kingdom, one of your allies that you were presumably satisfied with the security situation there, there is no reason for that person to be kept in Guantánamo.

Cliff Sloan: Obviously, the United Kingdom is perhaps our closest ally on counter-terrorism and is a very, very strong and valued ally on counter-terrorism.

Ian Woods: A lot of campaigners question British commitment to this, and how hard they have been pushing for his release.

Cliff Sloan: I think the British government has made very clear their desire to have Shaker Aamer returned to the UK.

In his Sky News feature, Ian Woods also mentioned how Ian Moss, a State Department official with responsibility for Guantánamo releases, told him, “We recognize the importance the UK government has placed on resolving Mr. Aamer’s case in a timely manner, and we have made his case a priority.”

Woods also explained that, “Even though there have been reports that the Pentagon would prefer to send him to Saudi Arabia, Sky News understands that is unlikely to happen.”

He added, “Leaked Pentagon files from a decade ago suggested Shaker Aamer had links to al-Qaeda. I’m told US officials now accept those claims have been discredited and he is not deemed a security threat.”

Woods also noted that “Intelligence officials, Homeland Security, the Justice Department, State Department and White House all have to sign off on transfers, along with the Pentagon, and it is understood that it is the Department of Defence which has been causing the delay.”

This seems to be a fair assessment, even though, after the Washington Post published its story, the Miami Herald claimed that Shaker’s “potentially pending transfer … 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 … 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.”

I’m inclined to believe that the stumbling block is indeed the Pentagon, as Guantánamo attorney Wells Dixon (of the Center for Constitutional Rights) recently stated, and as CCR also explained in response to the Post‘s article:

We are encouraged by the Obama administration’s restated commitment to closing the prison before the president leaves office, but are concerned that the Pentagon is working against closure and that the White House is being too slow to respond.

The Pentagon is doing just barely enough to look busy but not enough to achieve actual closure as ordered by the president. Transfers arranged long ago reportedly sit on desks at the Pentagon gathering dust; officials there were supposed to pick up the pace of the Periodic Review Boards that determine whether the remaining men can be cleared and transferred, yet the next PRB isn’t scheduled until June.

The White House must wake up to what is happening and keep pressure on the DOD to ensure momentum on transfers.

CCR added that a replacement for Cliff Sloan should also be appointed, which I think is a sensible suggestion, and also noted — in a passage that would surely be echoed by all the men approved for transfer — that it is “increasingly difficult to give our clients — including Fahd Ghazy, Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Mohammed Al-Hamiri, and Tariq Ba Odah, all of whom have been cleared for transfer, some for years — real hope that they will ever be released.”

In conclusion, I can only express my hope that there is enough impetus within the administration for Shaker Aamer’s release that this additional — though obviously unjustifiable — review proceeds swiftly, and that the new defense secretary Ashton Carter, who has to sign off on any proposed Guantánamo releases, will take to heart Cliff Sloan’s analysis of the importance of freeing men approved for transfer, and will sign off on the release of some of the 57 Guantánamo prisoners approved for transfer out of the prison as swiftly as possible.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

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Andy Worthington

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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