Obama Officials Accused of ‘Deceiving’ Congress on Gitmo Releases

Foreign Affairs Chair: Admin had intelligence showing countries could not control terrorists

Guantanamo Bay
Guantanamo Bay / AP
July 8, 2016

Officials in charge of implementing President Obama’s plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay defended themselves Thursday against charges that they deceived Congress on detainee transfers.

Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.) in opening remarks at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing alleged that Lee Wolosky and Paul Lewis, special envoys in charge of Guantanamo closure at the Departments of State and Defense, respectively, made statements before congressional lawmakers in March that were "inconsistent" with classified intelligence documents provided to the committee by the Obama administration.

It was during the same testimony that Lewis acknowledged that Americans had died at the hands of former Guantanamo Bay detainees, a revelation that led to a Washington Post report asserting that around a dozen former Guantanamo prisoners have attacked U.S. or allied forces in Afghanistan, killing a half dozen Americans. The officials said Thursday that 14 former detainees had been responsible for these deadly attacks.

"The committee asked whether the Department of Defense ever knowingly transferred a detainee to a country that did not exhibit an ability to substantially mitigate the risk of recidivism or maintain custody or control of that individual," Royce explained of the previous hearing. "Mr. Lewis and Mr. Wolosky assured committee members that it had not. Yet numerous intelligence reports provided by the administration suggest that their answers were inaccurate: in fact, the Defense Department had done so on numerous occasions."

Lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about President Obama’s efforts to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo to other countries in light of intelligence showing a substantial number of detainees have returned to terrorism. According to the Director of National Intelligence, roughly 18 percent of ex-Guantanamo detainees transferred from the prison since 2001 are confirmed to have reengaged in terrorism and 13 percent are suspected of doing so, as of March.

Royce accused both officials of "deceiving" the committee and the American people, and said that they ignored the committee when given the opportunity to correct their statements. The administration only responded in a letter Tuesday when Royce convened the hearing on the matter, suggesting a closed-door session be held. The letter indicated that the administration is not prohibited by law from transferring detainees to countries that intelligence assessments show will be challenged in containing terrorists, a departure from the statements made by Lewis and Wolosky in March.

But the officials defended themselves on Thursday, explaining that they were aware of three intelligence assessments cited by Royce but that they rely on other intelligence reports in addition to those supplied by the Defense Intelligence Agency to assess countries for resettling Guantanamo prisoners. They sidestepped questions about whether they were aware that the assessments mentioned by Royce indicated that some countries lack the ability to control terrorist detainees.

"What I would point out to the committee is that in connection with these transfers, we do rely on intelligence reporting that is broader than just [Defense Intelligence Agency] reporting," Wolosky said. "It’s tailored specifically to the issue of a transfer to a certain country at a particular point in time and geared toward a determination or an analysis of whether the relevant statutory standards for transfers can be met."

"The reports you refer to are one of many reports we looked at. We look at all sorts of information in the intelligence community," explained Lewis. "The [defense] secretary makes his determination looking at all the evidence that is available, the updated evidence." He added that, if intelligence shows a "gap in capabilities," U.S. officials then try to negotiate with the foreign government in question to receive adequate security assurances.

When pressed, Lewis said that he is not "aware" of any transfers made by the Obama administration that have not complied with the relevant statutory requirements.

Royce pushed back, suggesting that the administration ignored intelligence assessments in order swiftly transfer prisoners from Guantanamo so the president can make good on a campaign promise to close the facility.

"I don’t think you can just wish away intelligence reports that raise grave concerns, reports that you chose to deny when asked about them in our last hearing," Royce said. "But if you’re now saying that the intelligence reports are—I assume the implication here—incomplete, then I have to say, from what we can tell, the president has made a political decision to close Guantanamo no matter what the cause to national security."

"That could be the only reason why these intelligence assessments are being pushed aside, in my judgement," the chairman added.

Royce also expressed concern over a recent report that Uruguay lost track of Abu Wa’el Dhiab, an al Qaeda-linked Syrian national who was one of six Guantanamo prisoners transferred to the South American country in 2014. According to CNN, U.S. and Brazilian officials are searching for Dhiab, who is believed to have traveled to Brazil on his way to the Middle East.

Wolosky testified in March that the administration was confident in Uruguay’s ability to control terrorist detainees.

"Why did you provide false assurances to Congress, why did you mislead us about Uruguay’s capabilities?" Royce asked.

Wolosky rejected the suggestion that he misled committee members and stood by his statements that Uruguay is taking steps to mitigate risks associated with the six detainees the country accepted two years ago.

"The standard is not elimination of risk. It’s mitigation of risk," Wolosky clarified.

Wolosky sought during his testimony to emphasize the "rigorous interagency process" undertaken to assess whether detainees should be released and where and when to release them.

Citing recent intelligence data, Wolosky said that 5 percent of the detainees transferred by the Obama administration are confirmed to have reengaged in terrorist or insurgent activity and 8 percent are suspected of doing so. He described these "low" numbers as proof of the administration’s successful process in vetting and releasing Guantanamo prisoners.

"Although we would prefer that no former detainees engage in such activity following their release, the low rate of reengagement for detainees released since January 20, 2009, is testament to the rigorous, interagency approach the administration has taken to both approving detainees for transfer and to negotiating and vetting detainee transfer frameworks," Wolosky stated.

The officials maintained Thursday that closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, is in America’s national security interests, repeating the assertion that the facility is used as a recruitment tool in terrorist propaganda.

Currently, there are 79 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo, 29 of whom have been approved for release.

Obama submitted a plan to Congress earlier this year that would involve moving Guantanamo detainees not cleared for release to U.S. prisons. Current law bars the military from using federal funds to move prisoners to stateside facilities, but the president hopes to work with lawmakers to implement the plan.

Lawmakers have sought to use annual defense legislation to thwart the planned Guantanamo closure in the next fiscal year, prompting veto threats from the White House.

Published under: Guantanamo