America's Guantanamo Files Haggling with Allies over New Homes for Detainees

Guantanamo must be closed. That was one of US President Barack Obama's first pledges upon taking office. But the newly released US dispatches make it clear that the search for new homes for the detainees wasn't easy or cheap. The list of demands from potential recipient countries, including Germany, was often long.
Von John Goetz und Frank Hornig
US efforts to get allies to accept former prisoners from the detention center at Guantanamo often resembled haggling at a bazaar.

US efforts to get allies to accept former prisoners from the detention center at Guantanamo often resembled haggling at a bazaar.

Foto: Brennan Linsley/ AP

Why was Germany being so intractable? Dan Fried even traveled to Berlin to hand deliver proposals from Washington -- and was snubbed. Every attempt by the US special envoy to coerce Germany into taking Guantanamo detainees seemed predestined to fail. German Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was "very skeptical," US Ambassador Philip Murphy cabled back home in frustration.

The Americans had similar problems with several countries. In September 2009, US President Barack Obama was keen to finally fulfill his promise to close the Guantanamo detention center on Cuba and send all the remaining prisoners to destinations around the globe. But nobody wanted them -- neither his countrymen nor his allies. And least of all the Germans.

Fried's position was not unlike a merchant in a bazaar, forced to haggle over the conditions under which countries would take prisoners initially considered extremely dangerous but now deemed harmless. He promised a range of attractive enticements: Money, development aid and even political capital like a visit by Obama himself -- or at least an invitation to the White House.

The negotiations were correspondingly lively. Potential recipient countries feigned doubt and provided detailed descriptions of the potential dangers they could face by accepting Islamists. The primary aim, it becomes clear from the US dispatches, was that of driving the price up as high as possible.

'Negative Reaction of the Chinese Government'

Even the Germans joined in the haggling, though Berlin had been particularly strident in calling for the closure of Guantanamo. Wolfgang Schäuble, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the country's interior minister until late October 2009, repeatedly rejected American overtures.

Berlin was particularly reluctant to take 17 Uighurs, originally from China, despite the fact that 500 of their ethnic brethren already lived in Munich, the largest such community in Europe. The Uighur community in Munich expressed a willingness to accept them into its midst. But Germany wouldn't allow it. Islamists from Guantanamo are too dangerous, Schäuble insisted. In fact, Washington suspected there was another reason: Germany's fear of China, which wanted the men back itself so it could pursue terrorism charges against them. One US dispatch contains the analysis that Germany's "reluctance about Uighurs is due to the expected negative reaction of the Chinese government."

Chinese diplomats told the US State Department in no uncertain terms that Beijing would consider the sending of Uighurs to Germany "a slap in the face." The balance of power had shifted so markedly that the German government would rather risk snubbing its long-established ally in Washington than suffer the wrath of the Communist regime in Beijing.

In December 2009 Fried, expressed his sympathy for Berlin's plight and proposed a different deal: What about a humanitarian case? Could Germany at least take one mentally disturbed Uighur and his care-taker brother?

Security Concerns

Fried hoped for a breakthrough -- and hoped it could be provided by Germany's new interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, likewise of the CDU, who took office following German general elections in September 2009. "In contrast to former Interior Minister Schäuble," a dispatch from last December reads, "current Interior Minister de Maizière has not (and is unlikely to) flouted security concerns about cases in the press." So encouraged was Fried by the new minister that he proposed even more candidates in addition to the Uighur brothers. The new candidates including a Syrian and a Palestinian, the only two Guantanamo detainees ultimately accepted by Berlin, more than six months later.

Even so, Fried's visit to the German Interior Ministry was initially disappointing. Although de Maizière briefly dropped in on Fried's negotiations with an undersecretary, no progress was made on the Uighur brothers. Instead, the report says the Germans merely stressed the importance of "keeping the current discussions and review of the detainees confidential."

Officially, Berlin still had security concerns.

The envoy President Obama sent to the German Chancellery had even less success at his meeting with Christoph Heusgen, Chancellor Angela Merkel's security advisor. "Heusgen was not optimistic that China would demonstrate any understanding for the two humanitarian cases," the relevant dispatch reads. Germany was not eager to "irritate" China by being the only country that takes Uighurs.

'Productive Internal Meetings'

Fried returned home empty-handed. Two months later the Americans made another attempt. On February 8, 2010, Ambassador Murphy asked the German Interior Ministry whether any progress had been made on the matter. "The US request is still being reviewed," de Maizière wrote back formally. "The ministry is having productive internal meetings on the issue." The decision would take a couple more weeks.

Luckily for the sick Uighur, his brother and the US, not all of Washington's allies were pursuing the same obstructionist strategy. Despite being in the midst of trade negotiations with China, tiny Switzerland expressed its willingness to take the two brothers in March. Still, Switzerland has a good reason to be friendly toward Washington: The US was unhappy about the fact that major Swiss banks had helped rich Americans evade taxes.

Originals: The Key Guantanamo Cables

Other countries were also cooperative -- sometimes even just offering suggestions. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, for example, related a brainstorm of his to John Brennan, Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor. One could implant chips into the former detainees containing information about them and allowing them to be tracked. The system worked with horses and falcons, the king was quoted as saying in a dispatch. Brennan indicated that such a procedure would likely encounter legal difficulties in the US. "Horses don't have good lawyers," Brennan told him.

US envoy Fried openly reported back to his government about which countries were willing to take former Guantanamo detainees -- and, more importantly, at what price.

Bulgaria, for example: The Interior Ministry in Sofia expressed willingness to accept two men, albeit on condition that the US got rid of visa requirements for Bulgarian tourists and businessmen and helped with relocation expenses. Fried proposed "a symbolic amount in the neighborhood of $50,000 - $80,000 per detainee."

A Rehabilitation Center for Ex-Detainees

The Maldives also wanted to know what financial benefits a deal with the US would bring. Fried told politicians in the Indian Ocean archipelago that other states had received $25,000 to $85,000 per detainee to cover "temporary living expenses and other costs." The Maldives could expect something toward the upper end of the range, he said.

Yemen, of all places, proved better at bartering. The country is home to many new members of al-Qaida and the homeland of 112 suspected Jihadis held at Guantanamo.

Yemen said it needed a decent rehabilitation center before if could take back the men. After all, officials argued, the former detainees had to be reintegrated into society after their protracted incarceration. "How many dollars is the US going to bring?" Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh asked, according to a dispatch from Sept. 15, 2009. The US offered him $500,000 "as an initial investment currently available fort he crafting of a rehabilitation program." But, as Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, reported, even that wasn't enough for the Yemenis. President Saleh "signaled that rehabilitation is not his concern but rather 'the US's problem.'"

While President Obama was coming under ever greater domestic pressure for postponing the fulfillment of his promise to shut Guantanamo, his diplomats were despairing at the increasingly outrageous demands from around the globe. "One of our major tasks in 2010 will ... be to manage expectations," one dispatch reads.

Indeed, even Slovenian Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar was asking Washington "what substantively Slovenia could do to secure a meeting for Prime Minister Borut Pahor with President Obama." Was the going rate one handshake with Obama per detainee? Or does one have to take two? Of course America's diplomats didn't want to discourage the minister, so they gently suggested Slovenia become more involved in Afghanistan and in the Guantanamo issue. Internally, however, the policy was clear: Slovenia's "top bilateral priority -- a meeting between PM Pahor and President Obama -- may be out of reach, even if they do everything we ask of them."

A House, a Job and Money

Almost 600 of the 800 or so detainees at Guantanamo Bay have now been released and sent to a variety of countries worldwide. Every one of them, Washington hopes, will ease the burden on the US government, and should thus be given a new identity, a job and an opportunity to lead a normal family life in his host country.

Unfortunately, this hope is not always fulfilled, as staff at the US embassy in Albania reported. Several Uighurs from Guantanamo arrived in the Albanian capital, Tirana, as early as May 2006. Since then there has been nothing but trouble -- not because the men are dangerous, but simply because the State Department is allegedly breaking its promises.

Originals: The Key Guantanamo Cables

The Uighurs complained to the US Embassy in Tirana that before leaving Guantanamo they had been told, "in two months (from arrival in Albania), you will have a house, a job, money, documents. You will have everything you need." In fact, it had been impossible for them to find work or permanent accommodation. They couldn't marry either, they said, because Albanian fathers didn't want former Guantanamo detainees as sons-in-law. They also claimed they were being overcharged by the state electricity company.

At their wits end, US diplomats relayed their frustration back to Washington: "Post does not have the human or financial resources to provide full-time social work assistance." They said the situation in Tirana threatened to spiral out of control unless action was taken quickly. "The prospect of eight ex-detainees camping at the Embassy's front door, being dragged away by the Albanian police," the dispatch read, "is another PR nightmare to be avoided."