Will WikiLeaks Keep Gitmo Open?

WikiLeaks’ initial release of roughly 250,000 stolen U.S. diplomatic cables have unearthed numerous embarrassing details from talks with foreign governments over resettling Guantanamo detainees – and ironically will help keep the detention facilities open for business.

From Slovenia’s discussions of taking in one detainee in exchange for a 20-minute meeting with President Obama, to Saudi King Abdullah’s suggestion that some could be fitted with electronic microchips for tracking like “horses and falcons,” to Spain’s ardent denials they were offered $85,000 per each detainee -- such bizarre revelations could dissuade countries from even mentioning Guantanamo behind closed doors.

Though spokesmen under both the Bush and Obama Administrations continuously stressed the enormous challenges in repatriating and resettling detainees, such statements received scant media attention.

Repeating that U.S. officials approached 90 countries over several years about resettling Guantanamo’s 22 Uighurs (a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority from western China) is not nearly as interesting as reading details from the actual cables and Cliffs Notes version printed in The New York Times.

Evoking memories of Washington Post Political Cartoonist Tom Toles’ “Coalition of the Billing” which referenced Iraq, the international haggling over whether to accept detainees, rehabilitate them, monitor them, or incarcerate them usually came down to one question, “what’s it worth to you?”

Albania received 5 Uighurs and several other “difficult cases” in 2006 -- then a personal visit from President Bush in 2007 and subsequent admittance into NATO.

For Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island, discussions focused on $3 million to take the remaining 17 Uighurs, a deal that was never sealed.

Another Pacific scuba diving paradise, Palau, ultimately agreed to accept them – reportedly part of a $200 million defense pact, though have only received six.

Years of talks with Saudi Arabia and Yemen -- whose nationals historically made up the second and third largest population blocks at Guantanamo, on whether Yemenis should attend a Saudi comprehensive rehabilitation program or if a similar model should be built in Yemen, never bore fruit as the cables show.While those countries at least recognized responsibilities and made attempts to work it out, others calling for Guantanamo’s closure dodged the resettlement topic entirely.

Surprisingly, Norway, yes, the same country that awarded President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize after he announced the closure of Guantanamo as his first act in office garnering worldwide applause, characterized resettling detainees as “purely a U.S. responsibility.”

Afghanistan, the largest source of Guantanamo’s total of roughly 780 detainees, has seen 199 come home, while 20 remain. Still, their inability to stop ex-detainees from re-engaging in terrorism has complicated future releases. In one cable, U.S. diplomats in Kabul noted that 29 of 41 men who were given pretrial releases allowed “dangerous individuals to go free or re-enter the battlefield without ever facing an Afghan court.”

The Defense Department’s recidivism rate for ex-Gitmo detainees as of Jan. 2010 was at least 20% -- meaning more than 120 men released are suspected or confirmed of having returned to terrorism.

As these include Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership figures like Mullah Abdullah Zakir, the Taliban operations commander in southern Afghanistan, and Abu Sufyan Al-Shihri, who emerged as deputy commander of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; and foot soldiers like Abdallah Saleh Al Ajmi, a suicide bomber who killed 13 in Mosul, Iraq, one has to ask why the continuous obsession with releasing Gitmo detainees?

In brief, the Bush Administration caved to domestic and international pressure and decided to empty Gitmo, preferably by sending most detainees overseas. Mr. Obama simply made it his top priority and set a firm closure date, which though both backfired, have not dampened enthusiasm for resettlement efforts.

Though the Bush Team created an ad-hoc, yet plausible, detention and interrogation center for the same Islamic terror network that carried out the 9/11 attacks, they failed to meaningfully defend it against an ever-rising tide of unfair criticism.

NGOs and the press focused most reports on the less than 1% of detainees who were actually abused. Meanwhile, the lack of transparency on detainee case files, combined with a rushed combat-zone screening process that led to another 5% of cases in which detainees were held who shouldn’t have been, led to over 500 defense attorneys proclaiming their clients were (a) innocent goat herders and (b) tortured. All of these factors led to a deeply flawed public perception of Guantanamo, hence immense pressure to close it.

Unable to send detainees to the mainland in the U.S. where they could potentially be released onto the streets by activist judges, both Presidents Bush and Obama leaned on their diplomats to whittle down the population by persuading other nations to accept detainees.

Though he wouldn’t imagine it, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, who has showcased precisely how tough – and embarrassing that has been, just bought the remaining 174 detainees even more time in the Caribbean’s most famous lock-down.

J.D. Gordon is a communications consultant to four Washington-D.C. think tanks and a retired Navy Commander who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-2009 as the Pentagon spokesman for the Western Hemisphere.