Two years after the newly minted Obama administration moved to undo what had become one of the most controversial legacies of the George W. Bush presidency by ordering the closure of the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a trove of State Department documents made public by the website WikiLeaks is providing new information about why that effort failed.
Key among the factors, the cables suggest: Congress' refusal to allow any of the captives to be brought to the United States.
In cable after cable sent to the State Department in Washington, American diplomats make it clear that the unwillingness of the United States to resettle a single detainee in this country — even from among 17 ethnic Muslim Uighurs considered enemies of China's communist government — made other countries reluctant to take in detainees.
Europe balked and said the United States should go first. Yemen at one point proposed the United States move the detainees from Cuba to America's SuperMax prison in the Colorado Rockies. Saudi Arabia's king suggested the military plant microchips in Guantanamo captives before setting them free.
A January 2009 cable from Paris is a case in point: France's chief diplomat on security matters insisted, the cable said, that, as a precondition of France's resettling Guantanamo captives the United States wants to let go, "the U.S. must agree to resettle some of these same LOW-RISK DETAINEES in the U.S." In the end, France took two.
Closing the Guantanamo detention center had been a key promise of the Obama presidential campaign, and the new President Barack Obama moved quickly to fulfill it.
Just two days after taking the oath of office, on Jan. 22, 2009, Obama signed an executive order instructing the military to close Guantanamo within a year. European countries were effusive in their praise.
But as the second anniversary of that order passed Saturday, the prison camps remain open, and the prospects of their closure appear dim. Prosecutors are poised to ramp up the military trials that Obama once condemned, and the new Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon of California, last week said the United States should expand the population to perhaps 800 from the current 173.
Many factors worked to thwart Obama's plans to close the camps — from a tangled bureaucracy to fears that released detainees would become terrorists. But Congress' prohibition on resettling any of the detainees in the United States hamstrung the administration's global search for countries willing to take the captives in. A September 2009 cable from Strasbourg, Germany, made clear what the Obama administration was up against in setting its hopes on European resettlement for long-held Guantanamo captives with ties there. The Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, told members "the U.S. could not expect European countries to accept detainees from Guantanamo if the U.S. were not willing to accept some on U.S. soil."
The stigma of Guantanamo also was a problem, even for those eventually cleared of terror ties. In February 2009, an Estonian diplomat told an American envoy in Brussels that the United States needed to begin educating its own citizens "that while some detainees are very dangerous, many of them do not pose a serious threat."