The chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff did not approve the Oct. 30 release of a terrorist held at the Guantanamo Bay prison, contrary to a Pentagon announcement that the transfer was “unanimously” approved by senior Obama administration officials.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, who retired Oct. 1 as chairman, said he did not support plans to release Aamer because of the detainee’s “conduct” after a 2009 interagency review certified him for transfer from the Cuban prison.
“It is a matter of congressional record that I recommended against releasing Shaker Aamer,” Dempsey told the Washington Free Beacon in an email.
“I acknowledge that a board recommended his release in 2009,” Dempsey added. “However, his conduct since 2009, his skills in the social media space, and the revenue that will be available to him once released caused me concern.”
Congress is currently investigating why Dempsey’s advice on Aamer was ignored by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who ordered the release.
Other officials familiar with Dempsey’s position said the four-star general opposed a 30-day, senior-level review of the transfer that included specific conditions for the transfer and relocation to Britain.
Since his release, which followed 14 years in Guantanamo, Aamer has given several interviews with British newspapers and voiced opposition to the Islamic terrorism.
Aamer, a Saudi national and British resident, was captured in late 2001 in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo in February 2002. He was accused of conducting financial work and recruiting for al Qaeda while living in the United Kingdom, and for collaborating with bin Laden in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon announced Oct. 30 it was releasing Aamer, saying he was “unanimously approved” for transfer to Britain.
However, the formal notification to Congress of the release did not include the approval of the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, among the senior officials of the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force that must approve all detainee transfers, according to congressional aides familiar with the notification.
The task force includes secretaries of defense, state, and homeland security, the attorney general, director of national intelligence and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Officials familiar with the issue said Dempsey, representing the military service chiefs, opposed the release based on intelligence indicating Aamer was a close associate of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and “is associated with al Qaeda terrorist cells in the United States.”
“He is of high risk and high intelligence value,” one official said.
Pentagon spokesmen declined to comment, noting a policy of not commenting on “internal” discussions. They would not comment on the apparently false press release that announced Aamer’s release and asserted the interagency review board unanimously approved Aamer’s release in 2009.
Joint Chiefs spokesman Capt. Greg Hicks said he would not discuss Dempsey’s advice to Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
“It is worth noting the secretary of defense does not have to seek the advice of the chairman or anyone else in making his determinations about detainee releases,” Hicks said.
Pentagon spokesman Cdr. Garry Ross declined to comment on Dempsey’s opposition to the release of Aamer and also said the defense secretary makes the final decision on detainee transfers.
Last month, Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and nine other Republican senators wrote to the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford, and to Carter, asking why the former chairman was not among those approving the transfer of Aamer in the formal congressional notification.
“It’s concerning that Gen. Dempsey appears to have disagreed with the recent transfer of Shaker Aamer,” Cotton said in a statement. “But that the Obama administration seems to have tried to hide his dissent, and has yet to answer my letter on the matter, greatly deepens my concern. I fear this is an attempt to once again put the president’s political agenda ahead of national security.”
The letter stated that the notification of transfer for Aamer did not include the Joint Chiefs of Staff as among those “listed as ‘concurring’ and ‘approving’ of the transfer, as is the norm.”
They called the press release describing the transfer as having been unanimously approved as “misleading.”
The letter asked Carter whether he reviewed the press release noting the unanimous approval “when it does not appear the Joint Chiefs supported that transfer decision.”
For Dunford, the senators asked whether Carter notified his office that it would go ahead with Aamer’s transfer “despite your office’s non-concurrance.”
Other senators who signed the letter were Pat Roberts (R., Kansas), Jerry Moran (R., Kansas), John Boozman (R., Ark.), Ron Johnson (R., Wis.), Marco Rubio (R.,Fla.), Thom Tillis (R., N.C.), Richard Burr (R., N.C.), Rob Portman (R., Ohio), and Susan Collins (R., Maine).
“Clearly the Joint Chiefs did not agree on the conditions for transferring Aamer to the UK,” said one congressional aide. “The administration is misleading at best and dangerous at worst in this.”
Aamer, 48, told Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper this month that Muslims who support terrorist attacks should leave Britain.
“The concept of war in Islam is not about indiscriminate killing,” Aamer was quoted as saying. “It is governed by rules that also cover how you should treat prisoners. If a man is innocent, a man who went to help the people, then you must share your own food with him, and treat him decently.”
Aamer told the Guardian newspaper that when he was found in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan he was seeking a better life for his family because food and property were inexpensive there.
Aamer could not be reached for comment. Cori Crider, a lawyer for the human rights group Reprieve who represented him, did not return an email seeking comment.