The Midnight Push to Empty Out GuantanamoOp-Ed
With less than a month remaining in office, President Obama is racing to free 19 more detainees from the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay. If history is any guide, this means that dangerous jihadists will be released to countries ill-equipped to handle them.
While many wondered whether Mr. Obama would fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to close Gitmo by breaking a bipartisan law barring him from bringing detainees to the U.S., the House Foreign Affairs Committee has remained focused on the president’s push to empty out the prison through reckless transfers to other countries.
We began our investigation two years ago, after the White House released six hardened terrorists to Uruguay. The administration had repeatedly promised Congress that it transfers detainees to foreign countries only after securing specific assurances about how those countries will reduce threats. Meanwhile, the administration wrote Uruguay’s president that none of the detainees had ever been involved in facilitating or conducting terrorism. Both Congress and the Uruguayan government were misled.
The case in Uruguay was not isolated. The White House has repeatedly released detainees to countries it knew lacked the intent and capability to keep the detainees from returning to terrorism.
The results have been deadly. At a March hearing, the administration’s special envoys for Guantanamo Bay closure admitted for the first time that as many as 12 former Gitmo detainees have returned to the terrorist battlefield and killed Americans. The list of countries to which they had been released is classified.
In July the State Department named a former detainee a “specially designated global terrorist” after reports of his involvement in the June terror attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. He had been released to Russia.
According to the office of the director of National Intelligence, nearly one-third of the detainees freed from Gitmo—208 of the 693 detainees who were released under Presidents Bush or Obama—are confirmed or suspected of returning to terrorism.
Consider Tariq Al-Sawah, released to Bosnia in January. Al-Sawah literally wrote the book on bomb-making for al Qaeda. He reportedly was an associate of Osama bin Laden who had knowledge of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.
After receiving a tip that the Obama administration was trying to pay Al-Sawah $100,000, I sent two staffers to Sarajevo in August and October to look into this report. They found that Bosnia’s limited security services are already being overwhelmed as scores of Bosnian fighters return from the war in Syria, and mosques with radical foreign supporters grow in influence. Making matters worse, the country also has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate.
This is the place where Al-Sawah the bomb-maker was dropped in the dead of January, with no coat, and in poor health. Even if he could manage to find legitimate employment, he does not have legal status in Bosnia to take it. The family member he was released to is also unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. Why wouldn’t he sell his terrorist skills?
As to the money, Bosnian officials say that the State Department discussed, in multiple meetings, making a direct payment to Al-Sawah of $100,000. U.S. embassy staff deny there was ever any agreement to pay Al-Sawah, and maintain that no funds have been sent to him directly or indirectly. U.S. staff notes from the meetings in question were conveniently shredded.
Administration stonewalling on Gitmo releases is hardly new. The White House refuses to provide the transfer agreements that would detail what—if any—promises and assistance are being provided to countries accepting detainees. The administration has routinely used such classified notices to shield information about detainee releases from public scrutiny. The American people are often the last to learn when these dangerous terrorists are released.
On Jan. 20, we have an opportunity to chart a better way. The prison at Guantanamo Bay should continue to serve as a secure, humane location for holding dangerous terrorists. And it is an appropriate location at which to detain and question new high-value individuals captured in our continuing fight against radical Islamist terrorism.
Mr. Obama’s midnight push to empty out Gitmo will not make America safer. His administration ought to use these final weeks to fix its Al-Sawah mess in Bosnia responsibly and quickly.
Mr. Royce is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.