By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
BERLIN, Jan. 26 -- European diplomats said Monday that they are willing to help the Obama administration empty the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but stopped short of making specific promises to give inmates new homes in Europe.
Foreign ministers from the 27 members of the European Union met in Brussels to discuss possible ways to resettle Guantanamo prisoners, following President Obama's pledge last week to close the detention center within a year. The session marked an about-face for the European Union, which had long refused requests from the Bush administration to give asylum or refugee status to prisoners who had been cleared for release.
"This is an American problem that they have to solve, but we'll be ready to help if necessary," Javier Solana, the European Union's commissioner for foreign and security affairs, told reporters. "Whenever they ask for help, I think the European answer will be 'Yes.' "
European officials warned, however, that their countries are divided over how to proceed, or even whether they should help at all. While most European governments have praised Obama for his commitment to shutter Guantanamo, few have been eager to take prisoners off the Pentagon's hands.
There is growing pressure in Europe to help out in some fashion. For years, European countries sharply criticized the Bush administration for holding hundreds of terror suspects in Guantanamo without trial.
At the same time, many European intelligence agencies visited the prison to interrogate suspects. European officials also allowed airplanes chartered by the CIA to make refueling stops in their countries as they covertly transferred suspects to Guantanamo from around the world.
"The European security agencies cooperated quite closely with the U.S. on this, much more closely than they were willing to admit early on," said Thomas Hammarberg, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, a 47-nation organization that serves as the continent's leading watchdog on human rights issues. "I think there is a recognition that this might be one way to undo a policy of which we aren't very proud."
The Pentagon says that about 60 of the 245 prisoners in Guantanamo have been cleared for release but legally cannot be returned to their home countries -- nations such as Syria, Somalia and Libya -- because of risks that they could be tortured or abused there. For years, members of the European Union rejected requests from the Bush administration to resettle some of those inmates, citing potential security risks as well as internal political opposition.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister, warned his counterparts in Brussels on Monday that they risked losing face with Obama -- who is vastly more popular in Europe than Bush -- if they didn't help out. "It is also a question of our credibility, of whether we support the dismantling of this American camp or not," he told reporters.
Germany is nonetheless divided. "I do not understand why we give the impression that Germany needs to accept prisoners," said Wolfgang Bosbach, deputy parliamentary leader for the Christian Democrats, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Guantanamo was established by the U.S. We did not run it. We did not use it."
Merkel, who strongly urged Bush to close Guantanamo, has kept quiet on the issue. Her spokesman, Ulrich Wilhelm, said Friday that it would be "premature" to say how Germany would respond until the Obama administration makes a specific request for assistance. Other European countries have echoed that line.
Former Bush administration officials said they repeatedly asked Germany and other European countries for help, but got nowhere.
"We always thought that if we could get one country in the E.U. to take a few of them, that it would cascade and other countries would follow suit," said Vijay Padmanabhan, a former State Department lawyer involved in the negotiations. "But we could never get that breakthrough."
Since Obama's election, a handful of European countries have changed their minds. Portugal, Ireland and Switzerland have been among the strongest advocates. But U.S. officials don't expect them to accept more than a few inmates each.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday that his country would take prisoners "under extreme, precise conditions only." Italy and Spain have said they would consider participating, but only under a plan endorsed by the European Union.
Britain, the Netherlands, Austria and Denmark have rejected the idea, saying that it is the United States' responsibility alone to handle the problem.
But even lawmakers in those countries said they should try to find other ways to help, given Europe's loud opposition to the existence of Guantanamo. "We should not be in the least bit churlish, or just let the Americans stew in their own juice," said Andrew Tyrie, a member of the British Parliament from the Conservative Party. "We've got to help Obama and not get on our high horse and sound very pompous."
European Union officials are also examining whether they can help the United States find a solution to another Guantanamo problem: what to do with the estimated 100 Yemeni nationals who remain in the prison.
The Pentagon has been reluctant to send the Yemenis home because of concerns that they will be promptly released without monitoring. At least one Yemeni rejoined al-Qaeda after he was released from Guantanamo. Yemen has also released other al-Qaeda operatives from prison, including two people convicted in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
A senior E.U. official involved in the Guantanamo negotiations said some European countries are considering whether to help pay to construct a new prison in Yemen to house inmates after they are released from U.S. custody.
Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, said Saturday that his country had agreed to build a "rehabilitation center" to accommodate Yemeni nationals still detained in Guantanamo. But officials in his government have made clear that they would need outside aid for the project.