Closing Guantanamo a Daunting Task

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico  — President-elect Barack Obama's planned review of Guantanamo Bay prisoners, a prelude to closing the detention center, must weigh the threats posed by an extraordinarily diverse group, from die-hard jihadists to innocent men swept up in war.

Two presidential transition team advisers said Monday that Obama is preparing to issue an executive order in his first day or week in office setting in motion the extensive survey needed to close the U.S. military prison in Cuba.

His team faces a daunting task.

Some cases are clear cut. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, brought to Guantanamo in 2006 from CIA custody, has claimed responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks. He said he wants to be executed to achieve martyrdom.

On the other end of the spectrum are men even the Pentagon acknowledges are no threat — 17 Uighur dissidents who remain detained over fears for their safety if returned to their homeland in China.

Most of the roughly 250 remaining prisoners lie in the murky middle.

It's unlikely the detention facility will be closed anytime soon. In an interview on ABC's "This Week" last weekend, Obama said it would be "a challenge" to close it even within the first 100 days of his administration.

"But I don't want to be ambiguous about this," he said. "We are going to close Guantanamo and we are going to make sure that the procedures we set up are ones that abide by our constitution."

Obama said his legal and national security teams are crafting procedures to determine the fate of each detainee that abide by the Constitution, but, "It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize."

The Guantanamo directive would be one of a series of executive orders Obama is planning to issue shortly after he takes office next Tuesday, according to the two advisers.

Obama transition team spokeswoman Brooke Anderson declined comment Monday. The advisers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the order that has not yet been finalized.

The Bush administration has called the Guantanamo detainees "the worst of the worst." The Pentagon insists they would attack America or its allies.

"Today, very dangerous men remain at Guantanamo Bay, which include terrorist trainers, bomb makers, recruiters and facilitators, terrorist financiers, and potential suicide bombers," said Cynthia O. Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

But detainee lawyers say the classified evidence is often thin. The government itself withdrew some accusations against the few detainees whose cases were scrutinized by a federal court in Washington, and many defense attorneys and human rights groups suspect allegations would fall apart in traditional courts.

Many detainees have insisted on their innocence and pleaded to be set free, according to transcripts of military hearings obtained by The Associated Press.

The Brookings Institution also examined hundreds of pages of declassified military documents, and ultimately said it couldn't tell whether many of the prisoners held for years without charges are terrorists or innocent.

"Despite a debate that has raged over American detention policy almost since the outset of the war on terrorism, the actual detainee population which the debate concerns remains strangely obscure," concluded the study, which identified current detainees, the allegations against them and what the prisoners claim about their own affiliations and conduct.

Many cases are based on vague accusations, made by people whose identities are classified. The detainees' frustration is palpable in the transcripts AP obtained from the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act.

"You bring your evidence and I will bring mine and we will see whose evidence is stronger," Sufiyam Barhoumi, an Algerian accused of being an explosives trainer in Afghanistan, told a military panel. His challenge was rejected by a U.S. Air Force colonel, who said "the only thing we can discuss here is the unclassified summary of evidence." Barhoumi remains at Guantanamo.

"Unfortunately, we are all acting in the dark, with extremely limited information about who these men are and what they have or have not done," said Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch.

Despair is evident among men who have been locked up for as long as seven years at Guantanamo. Some told their military panels they would rather die than remain.

"I cannot bear to stay here any more. If you make a decision to keep me here, it means you are signing my execution letter," said Mohammed Rahim, an Afghan who denies having been a Taliban intelligence officer.

The Pentagon ruled he should remain.

Aminullah Baryalai Tukhi, an Afghan taxi driver accused of transporting members of an Islamic charity the U.S. says supports terrorism, prayed during his hearing for God to "make American authorities understand that I am not a threat."

"God please help me get released and join my family, or God, please leave me dead. I want to die," he said.

Tukhi was one of the few lucky ones — he was sent home on Dec. 12, 2007. The hearings held from January 2007-January 2008 resulted in 195 decisions to continue to detain the prisoner and 33 decisions to transfer.

The Pentagon says about 520 men have been sent away from Guantanamo since it opened. A wide gap exists between what the U.S. says about the remaining detainees and how they describe themselves, Brookings found.

Based on government allegations, a total of 27 detainees held at Guantanamo are members of al-Qaida's leadership cadre, 99 are lower-level operatives of the terror group, nine are Taliban leaders, 14 are Taliban fighters and operatives and 93 are foreign fighters. Most foreign fighters in Afghanistan came from Arab countries.

But only 87 detainees are described having any relationship with al-Qaida, the Taliban or other armed groups considered hostile to the U.S., the Washington-based think tank found.

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England has slated about 60 for transfer from Guantanamo, including the Uighurs, but the Pentagon says they can't go home because their governments won't accept them, might release them and create a security risk, or might torture them.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us