By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009
The Obama administration has secured commitments from nearly a dozen countries willing to accept detainees from Guantanamo Bay and is increasingly confident about its ability to transfer a large majority of the prisoners who have been cleared for release, according to U.S. and foreign officials.
Six European Union countries -- Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain -- have accepted or publicly agreed to take detainees. Four E.U. countries have privately told the administration that they are committed to resettling detainees, and five other E.U. nations are considering taking some, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
Two E.U. countries will soon send delegations to the U.S. military prison in Cuba to assess detainees held there.
The administration's progress in resettling the approximately 80 detainees cleared for release so far could ease the politics and logistics of moving terrorism suspects to American soil. Some lawmakers fiercely oppose bringing any detainees to the United States, but a substantially reduced detainee population could bolster the administration's effort to secure a prison location in this country.
Even if the administration meets its most optimistic targets for transferring prisoners to other countries, it still faces major obstacles to closing Guantanamo Bay. Of the 229 detainees held there, the cases of nearly 120 have yet to be reviewed. Officials are still deciding how to handle detainees they want to hold for a prolonged period, as well as others they want to prosecute.
Moreover, the administration is trying to determine the fate of the 98 Yemenis held at Guantanamo. Officials, wary of repatriating them to a country U.S. officials view as ill-equipped to monitor their activities, say they are negotiating with Saudi Arabia to take them.
Of the detainees cleared for release so far, 11 have been transferred home or to third countries, including Bermuda, which accepted four Chinese Uighurs. The Pacific island of Palau has agreed to resettle the 13 remaining Chinese Uighur detainees, and more than half of them are willing to go or are seriously considering the offer.
In addition, the administration has held positive talks with Australia and Georgia, and it has formally approached or is planning to hold talks with countries in South America, the Persian Gulf region, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, the administration officials said.
Congress has blocked the administration from resettling any detainees in the United States, a move that administration and some European officials feared would lead other countries, particularly in the European Union, to refuse to help close the military prison. But the issue has proved relatively unproblematic, officials said.
"Obama has a lot of political capital. Countries want to do something for him, and that allows us to say, 'This is it, this is what we want you to do,' " said a senior administration official. "This is going a lot better than we might have thought."
President Obama has promised to close Guantanamo Bay by January. To meet that goal, the administration has appointed Daniel Fried, a longtime diplomat with deep ties in Eastern Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union, to lead negotiations with other countries.
Fried was recently in Georgia, where officials expressed willingness to help. Indeed, a senior Georgian official joked in an interview that his country, which just marked the first anniversary of a war with Russia, would accept every Guantanamo detainee if the deal came with the establishment of a U.S. military base in Georgia.
The senior administration official said negotiations in Eastern Europe will intensify once detainees arrive in larger countries in the European Union, such as Italy and Spain. U.S. and European officials believe that stalled negotiations with Germany can be rekindled after that country holds national parliamentary elections next month. And there is some expectation that France, which has taken one detainee, may accept more.
The administration has repatriated five detainees to Chad, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Officials also expect to transfer more prisoners to their home countries, but in some cases, involving prisoners from Algeria and Tajikistan, officials are facing resistance from the detainees themselves, some of whom fear persecution upon their return.
Thirty detainees have been tentatively approved for prosecution, including a Tanzanian sent to U.S. District Court in New York, and teams of federal and military prosecutors are assessing where to put the others on trial.
Of the detainees whose cases are still under review, a majority are Yemeni. Some of those, such as Ramzi Binalshibh, an alleged co-conspirator in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, will almost certainly be prosecuted or held in some form of indefinite detention if the administration creates a system for prisoners who it believes cannot be brought to trial but are deemed too dangerous to release.
Binalshibh's military lawyers have argued in a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the Yemeni, who allegedly acted as a liaison between al-Qaeda's leadership and the Hamburg cell led by hijacker Mohamed Atta, is not mentally competent to stand trial.
Yemen has said it is willing to accept its nationals, but the administration fears that the impoverished nation, which is combating a resurgent al-Qaeda, cannot control terrorism suspects. U.S. officials point to a series of prison escapes and the unexplained release of some suspects by the Yemeni authorities. Adding to a deteriorating security situation, the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh is also battling a secessionist movement in the country's south and a Shiite rebellion in the north.
In response, the administration is negotiating with neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has created rehabilitation centers to integrate returning detainees and terrorism suspects captured in the kingdom. John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism and a former CIA station chief in the region, is leading talks with the Saudis, administration officials said. Brennan has also met with officials in Yemen.
"The administration is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with many countries, including Saudi Arabia and Yemen, on the potential transfer of Guantanamo detainees and on the availability and 'best practices' of rehabilitation programs abroad," said an administration official. "We have been encouraged by the readiness of these governments to work collaboratively with us, as we work through the many security and legal issues involved."
A Saudi official declined to comment on the status of negotiations other than to say that "things are moving."