Obama’s Push to Close Gitmo Is Stuck on ‘Uruguay Six’

Republicans say freed detainees pose a threat the administration is not addressing.

Former detainee Jihad Ahmed Mustafa Diyab, in Montevideo last month.

Photographer: MIGUEL ROJO/AFP/Getty Images

One reason President Barack Obama has struggled to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is a dispute with Congressional Republicans over six former prisoners who made a lot of noise in Uruguay -- and whom some see as a threat to American security.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and others criticize the administration's approach to the “Uruguay Six,” who were released from Guantanamo last December and relocated to Montevideo. Republicans tailored the national defense authorization bill to limit the release of Guantanamo prisoners. If enacted it would effectively rob Obama of his last chance to close the prison, as he promised on his second day as president. He is expected to veto the bill.

“This is a case study of how the administration has chosen to neglect security considerations,” Royce told me in an interview. “The administration appears to have placed a political goal of closing the detention center ahead of the real threat these detainees pose.”

He faults the administration's arrangement with Uruguay, which granted the six prisoners refugee status. Because Uruguay grants extensive rights to refugees, Uruguayan authorities could not monitor the detainees there. Royce argues that this violates U.S. law, which requires former detainees' host countries to mitigate the risk they pose.

Then Uruguayan president, Jose Mujica, might not have believed monitoring the released Guantanamo prisoners was necessary. The State Department’s special envoy for detainee resettlement, Clifford Sloan, wrote him a letter last December assuring him that the six men had never been terrorists.

“There is no information that the above mentioned individuals were involved in conducting or facilitating terrorist activities against the United States or its partners or allies,” the Sloan letter stated. Royce’s staff released the letter over the administration's objections.

That struck a different tone than the U.S. military did in classified assessments of the Uruguay Six. The Defense Department's Joint Task Force Guantanamo compiled reports in 2007, as revealed by Wikileaks, that stated that all the men posed a “high risk” and constituted “a likely threat to the U.S., its interests, and allies.” One of the men, Adel Bin Muhammad Abbess Ouerghi, who was born in Tunisia, was reported to have high-level Al Qaeda contacts, including with Osama bin Laden, and may have had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.

Ian Moss, a senior adviser for the new special envoy, told me the State Department stands by the Sloan letter “because it's true.” The 2007 assessment revealed by Wikileaks was only one piece of the puzzle, he said. A more thorough assessment conducted by an interagency task force in 2010 found that these men were safe to release, he said, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed off on it.

“That rigorous interagency process collected and considered all reasonably available information concerning the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, including on the six transferred to Uruguay,” said Moss. He added that the task force decision was unanimous and “reflected the best predictive judgment of senior government officials that any threat posed by the detainee could be sufficiently mitigated through feasible and appropriate security measures in the receiving country.”

Congressional Republicans argue that appropriate security measures were not taken in Uruquay. Royce says the Uruguayan government refused to monitor the released Guantanamo prisoners, who at the time lived six blocks from the U.S. Embassy. Royce also says that when a senior Uruguayan intelligence official, Jose Colman, told U.S. Embassy officials about the prohibition and they appealed to the Uruguayan president's office, Colman was fired for insubordination. Colman declined to comment.

U.S. Embassy officials altered security procedures near the embassy and asked for more local police patrols. Royce said that the six released detainees were seen walking past the embassy dozens of times, which raised alarms among the embassy staff.

“The embassy was not aware the Uruguayan government planned to house them six blocks from the U.S. Embassy until after they had moved in,” said Royce. “Our diplomats have had to scramble on the ground to deal with the situation as soon as they noticed the detainees.”

Speaking for the State Department, Moss disputed Royce’s account. He said the men could have just been walking by; after all, it was their neighborhood. Moss also said sufficient safeguards were in place. The details are classified.

Moss referred me back to the final report of the task force that released the six men, which stated “they were low-level foreign fighters affiliated with al-Qaida or other groups operating in Afghanistan,” and “for the most part, these individuals were uneducated and unskilled.”

Four of the six released prisoners did set up a protest in front of the embassy in May, demanding that the U.S. government provide them with financial support. After that, President Tabare Vazquez, who succeeded Mujica in March, moved the men to a different part of town. He also made it clear Uruguay will not take any more Guantanamo prisoners. The only sign of trouble from the men since then has been one allegation of domestic violence.

Royce has been pressing the Obama administration for more information about the issue ever since  the men were relocated. In late April, he wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry to request more information on the detainees and the current monitoring. Denied those requests, Royce and other Republicans inserted two related provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act.

One would require the administration to tell Congress about all diplomatic assurances given to host countries when Guantanamo detainees are released. Another would require the administration to give Congress unclassified versions of all the assessments from the Defense Department’s Joint Task Force Guantanamo, not just the ones Wikileaks spilled.

The White House is expected to veto the defense billthis week. The defense bill passed the Senate this month 70-27, but Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has promised that Democrats will be able to sustain Obama’s veto if it is challenged.

What happens next is unclear. After seven years of hostility with the administration over Guantanamo, Congress is unlikely to give the president what he needs to release the 114 remaining prisoners. Concerns about the Uruguay Six have complicated this item on Obama's to-do list, and maybe doomed it. That would deny the president a major part of his foreign policy legacy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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