Decision to Move Detainees Resolved Two-Year Debate Among Bush Advisers

U.S. Navy personnel keep guard in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the 14 high-level detainees arrived on Labor Day.
U.S. Navy personnel keep guard in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the 14 high-level detainees arrived on Labor Day. (Pool Photo)
By Dafna Linzer and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 8, 2006

Shackled and hooded, 14 men in secret CIA custody were gathered one by one from locations across the world last weekend and flown to a rallying point to await one more flight. For some of the prisoners, it was their third or fourth journey to yet another unknown destination since President Bush approved a covert plan for them to disappear into CIA facilities hidden throughout Eastern Europe and Asia.

On Sunday night, the men -- three Pakistanis, two Yemenis, two Saudis, two Malaysians, a Palestinian, a Libyan, a Somali, an Indonesian and a Tanzanian -- were sedated and placed together onto a flight to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They arrived Labor Day morning, an unusually quiet time at the Pentagon-run facility.

The arrival of the prisoners, witnessed by few beyond the CIA officers accompanying them, marked the end of a five-year effort by the Bush administration to conceal as many as 100 al-Qaeda suspects from the world and to shield the agency's interrogation tactics and facilities from public scrutiny. It was also the result of nearly two years of debate within the Bush White House, touched off by a personal plea from British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the release of British citizens in U.S. custody.

The debate divided the president's key advisers and kept open the CIA's "black sites" until President Bush himself, under the advice of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, ordered the facilities emptied for now, and possibly for good.

In a series of interviews, often on the condition of anonymity, key players from throughout the administration agreed to discuss events that led to the unraveling of one of the president's most controversial programs. Drawing on recollections and portions of personal notes, officials said major factors that pushed the president toward Wednesday's announcement were demands from allies to close sites down, an increased urgency from the CIA to find a longer-term solution to detentions and an appeal from Rice to Bush to consider the administration's legacy.

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For much of 2004, British officials pushed their counterparts at the State Department and the Pentagon to consider releasing the remaining four British men held at Guantanamo Bay. Blair's government was under pressure at home to get the men back and to denounce the Cuban facility on humanitarian grounds.

Senior lawyers representing the Office of the Vice President, the State Department, the Justice Department, the CIA and the Pentagon argued over the request. They had agreed earlier that year to release five suspects, but they couldn't agree on the remaining four.

The issue crystallized growing differences of opinion among Bush's top advisers, with Rice and Vice President Cheney increasingly at odds over the administration's detainee policies.

As debate dragged on, no consensus was ever sent to Bush for a decision. Finally, Blair raised the issue with the president during a trip to Washington that November. Officials briefed on their discussions said the president agreed immediately. "Blair said he really needed these guys, and the president was happy to help him," said one senior official who was involved in the deliberations.

Two months later, in January 2005, the four men were sent home to Britain and immediately freed. But as Cheney's lawyer David Addington had predicted, the decision opened up the floodgates of Guantanamo Bay. Over the coming months, every European prisoner was sent home and a total of 100 detainees were released.

Policymakers including Cheney and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales who were heavily invested in the detainee program were losing ground.

Meanwhile, State Department legal adviser John Bellinger III and counselor Philip D. Zelikow pushed for a major overhaul of detainee practices. Zelikow had been executive director of the 9/11 commission, which had recommended overhauling the detention policy to make it consistent with international norms.

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