Daniel Fried was the perfect man for the hardest job in Washington, but even he couldn’t close Guantanamo.
- By Michelle ShephardMichelle Shephard is the national security correspondent for the Toronto Star and author of Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone and Guantanamo's Child.
The last time I visited the czar in his office he was just a few weeks from packing up and moving on. He had a deputy, an assistant, and few other staff, but for a czar, his office was pretty modest, tucked away on the 6th floor of the State Department with a hard-to-spot sign outside his door that read: "Daniel Fried Special Envoy for Closure of the Guantanamo Detention Facility." His office was tidy; soft lighting and comfy couches for visitors, nothing indicating the messiness of his job. Ambassador Fried, as he’s known around the State Department, had his four decades of foreign diplomacy chronicled in frozen moments on his wall.
There’s a laughing Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright alongside Fried, back when he had a head of thick black curls. It was 1996 and Fried had accompanied Clinton to Prague where she was giving a speech on NATO enlargement. He had helped Clinton’s speechwriter Lissa Muscatine hone the address. "We gave her a draft and she substantially rewrote it," he told me, as he looked at the photo, then out the window. It was January, an unseasonably warm and sunny day. "Somewhere between a heavy edit and a complete rewrite, between 11 and 2:30 in the morning. She didn’t have to do that. The speech was good. It was really good. Lissa Muscatine was a damn good speechwriter. We worked on it. Hillary made it better."
They’ve remained close since. Clinton personally asked him to take the job two months after she was appointed secretary of state; President Barack Obama made it official in May 2009. "There are two kinds of situations when you get an impossible job. One of which is a set up — you’re the fall guy. The other is when they back you. Hillary Clinton has backed me at every turn, so I didn’t mind," he said. "Loyalty in Washington is not unheard of but you do have to know who’ll be loyal. She was."
Another photo is from November 2001, at George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Fried is dancing with Condoleezza Rice, arms raised mid-jig, while Laura Bush and Lyudmila Putin, wife of the Russian president, look on. Somewhere off camera a string band is playing "Cotton-Eyed Joe."
"I said to Laura Bush, ‘I love this,’ and she said, ‘Condi’s standing there alone, why don’t you ask her to dance?’ I don’t know what possessed me, but there I was taking her through this complicated dance," recalled Fried, chuckling. Apparently she had no problem keeping up — something he credited to Rice’s figure skating days. Underneath the photo, it’s signed in loopy handwriting: ‘Fancy footwork Daniel.’ Condi.
Sitting down on one of the plush chairs, Fried moves with a profound limp due to a chronic knee condition. He’s upbeat, with a trademark lopsided grin that looks like he’s about to launch into the world’s funniest joke. Those who know him well say that the 60 year-old is always like this, despite the fact that he might have the most stubbornly difficult job in Washington. Make that impossible. Just a few days earlier, Congress passed a military spending bill prohibiting Guantanamo’s closure, again, and his president failed to veto it, again. He didn’t say it then, and won’t admit it now, but it was clear that the political push to close Guantanamo was gone.
That was confirmed just a few weeks later, as Fried was quietly reassigned to a position coordinating sanctions for Syria and Iran. The symbolism wasn’t lost on Guantanamo critics. Obama vowed to shut the prison but instead only shut the Office for the Closure of Guantanamo.
* * *
When Fried was named the Guantanamo point man four years ago, Obama’s message of "change" was in the air. Nothing could signify the out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new administration better than shuttering the most powerful symbol of the Bush administration’s war on terror. The U.S. needed to regain "the moral high ground" and no longer sacrifice "our values and our ideals," a freshly inaugurated Obama intoned amid much fanfare and diplomatic backslapping. Obama called Guantanamo a "misguided experiment" and vowed to "clean up the mess." It was his first major executive order. Fried became his special envoy janitor, or, as the New Republic described him: "The poor schmo who has to move all the Gitmo detainees."
Some of Fried’s friends and supporters had hoped he would get a more prestigious posting. He had been the ambassador to Poland from 1997 to 2000, was a senior director on the National Security Council (NSC) and was the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, among other positions, over the years. "I thought it was disappointing … and yet, in other ways he was the perfect person for this job because of his contacts in Europe, the fact that he is personally, very operational," said John B. Bellinger III, former legal advisor to the NSC under the Bush administration. "He can literally roll up his own sleeves and do his own work and not order other people to do it."
Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, told me in an interview shortly after Fried was appointed in 2009, that he was the perfect man for the thankless job. "One reason that I like him is that he has focused much more on getting the job done than on protecting his own career and inside political reputation…. I think he’s broken some diplomatic china in getting this job done. He’s willing to accept responsibility for any hurt feelings that that may cause."
Fried’s main task was to repatriate or find homes elsewhere for the dozens of detainees the Pentagon had already cleared for transfer. But he also realized, when it came to Guantanamo, nothing was ever simple. And he knew from the start what he was up against.
"There were so many mistakes with Gitmo. It took years to create a mess this bad; and not just one bad decision, many bad decisions. It’s painful," he told me during one of a series of interviews over the last four years.
At first, everything seemed to happen according to Fried’s plan. Guantanamo’s airstrip was crowded with flights shuttling detainees off the island, and bringing international envoys to interview prospective prisoners. Detainees were repatriated; 40 were given refuge in other countries, since they were at risk of torture if sent home. Fried embarked on a punishing worldwide diplomacy tour where he convinced 17 countries, from Portugal to Bulgaria to France to Palau, the impoverished archipelago in the South Pacific, to take these prisoners.
But after an auspicious start, the political dominoes started to fall. By mid-2009, as domestic issues took precedence, Obama rarely spoke of Guantanamo and soon lost much of his own Democratic base. A plan hold a trial in lower Manhattan for the five detainees accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks backfired. Legislators blocked any detainees from stepping foot on U.S. soil, making Fried’s worldwide pitch all the more difficult. There was a close call on Christmas Day 2009, when Yemeni-trained Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane. With Yemen identified as the country that posed the greatest risk to U.S. security, 56 of the Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo cleared for transfer suddenly faced indefinite detention. In January 2010, Obama issued a presidential moratorium against releasing any Yemeni detainees, which remains in effect today.
Quickly, the Guantanamo narrative changed from the place that needed to close, to the place that according to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, houses "crazy bastards that want to kill us all."
Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee
in April 2011, Fried tried to stress that while indeed there may be some crazy bastards, his job wasn’t about releasing them, nor was it Obama’s alone — many of the detainees cleared for transfer had been designated as such under the Bush administration. "It is important to note this because of a common misperception that detainees transferred earlier were necessarily the ‘easy cases,’ and that all those who remained were therefore more dangerous," Fried told committee members. "In fact, a number of detainees at Guantanamo in January 2009 were still being held not because of the threat that they might pose, but because they could not be returned to their country of origin due to concerns about their inhumane treatment, and no other country had yet been found to accept them."
Today, 166 prisoners are being held at Guantamamo, down from a high of about 600 in 2003. Only seven are currently before the military commissions but 24 more could face trial. Another 46 face indefinite detention without charge or trial. Three have been convicted and are serving sentences. That means that more than half of the remaining Guantanamo detainees should not be there, according to the findings of the Obama administration’s interagency task force. Among that population are three Uighur detainees, trapped behind the wire despite a 2008 federal court order that concluded their detention is illegal. The men, who belong to the Uighur Muslim minority in western China, had fled persecution for Afghanistan and were caught in the post-9/11 dragnet. They were not part of the Taliban or al Qaeda. In fact, when they were captured and handed over to U.S. forces in late 2001, the men said they were relieved. The United States opposed China’s discriminatory treatment of Uighurs. Surely their mistaken capture during the panicked months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks would be realized soon?
Part of the fear is what could happen when detainees are released, or the "Fox News Test" — as it’s known in Fried’s office. Obama’s moral high ground doesn’t stand a chance. Case in point: when four Americans were killed in the September 11, 2011 Benghazi attack on the U.S. consulate, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Fox News quoted unnamed intelligence sources fingering a former Guantanamo detainee released in 2007, under the Bush administration. While the story remains murky and officials later denied the connection, the notion that Gitmo is still packed with terrorists that would do Americans harm is still a powerful force.
Not that there aren’t real risks. One high-profile case involved a Saudi citizen, Said al Shihri, one of Guantanamo’s first inmates, captured in Afghanistan following an airstrike, and who was released in November 2007 into a rehabilitation program for former jihadists in Saudi Arabia, but fled the following year. Shihri, who reportedly died in January from wounds suffered last year, went on to become the deputy leader of the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. There are other cases of the so-called "return-to-battlefield" statistics for Guantanamo detainees, although the numbers and facts remain controversial. A Director of National Intelligence report states that of the 68 detainees released under the Obama administration, three have engaged in insurgency or terrorism, which is about 4 percent. Under the Bush administration, the rate was approximately 17 percent, still far below the estimated 60 percent U.S. recidivism rate for overall criminal convictions.
As everyone continued to shout about Gitmo in those early years of the first Obama administration, Fried was quietly carrying on, cashing in diplomatic favors, bankrolled by Obama’s worldwide popularity. Then everything came to an abrupt halt when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which dictated military spending for the 2011 fiscal year. A provision in the bill forces countries willing to accept Guantanamo detainees — whether their own citizens or by offering asylum — to guarantee that the released man will never engage in terrorism activity. The bill, with minor revisions, received Congress’ blessing again for 2012 and this January. "It was intended to be a prohibition, an impossible barrier," Fried said to me a few days after it passed. "How can I guarantee that you cannot trip as you’re crossing the street?"
The only way to bypass the provision is for a court-ordered release, as is the case with the three remaining Uighurs, or if the U.S. secretary of defense, with the blessing of the secretary of state and director of national intelligence signs a waiver for a release in the name of national security.
That hasn’t happened. But Fried is undeterred in his conviction that Gitmo needs to be closed.
"Guantanamo has a certain reputation around the world that hurts my country," he said, leaning forward, looking over the top of his glasses. "Guantanamo’s existence is on the short list of the extremist’s complaint list and their recruiting list for their future jihadists. Now some argue, ‘Well if they didn’t have Guantanamo they’d come up with another excuse.’ Well, perhaps so, but Guantanamo is on their list and failure to try to close Guantanamo is a problem." He conceded there are always risks. "If your standard for risk acceptance is zero, you don’t transfer anybody. I believe if you have zero tolerance for risk you’re in the wrong business. It’s easier because you can’t be blamed, so the cautious bureaucrat will avoid personal blame while allowing a greater damage to occur and not care. That’s not my style."
There was rare consensus around Washington that if a diplomat could lead the team to close Gitmo, it was Fried. Gregory Craig, former Obama administration White House counsel, who helped negotiate some of the early deals, is effusive in his praise for his friend, whom he calls a "national treasure." "I have seen him in action in a variety of arenas, and he is always the same guy — open, honest, direct…. Dan Fried represents the best that the Foreign Service has to offer."
Any hope of ending what Obama once called a "sad chapter in American history," seemed to vanish along with the sign over Fried’s office. No detainees have left Gitmo this year, and the issue of closing the prison had faded from the headlines again, until the prisoners recently took matters into their own hands.
Now most of the remaining 166 detainees are on a hunger strike. One of the Yemeni prisoners recently told his story in a powerful New York Times op-ed. "I will not eat until they restore my dignity," wrote Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel via his lawyers. "I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial."
* * *
The air conditioner is blasting in Johnsen Toribiong’s cream colored Kia. Outside, the tropical splendor of the South Pacific passes by in a blur of deep greens and flashes of color: arched mangroves, rows of pink plumeria tress, the sapphire blue waters that make Palau a scuba diver’s paradi
se. A gospel tune, sung in Palauan, is playing on the radio. "I never used to be able to drive myself," says Toribiong, Palau’s former president, who until recently had a security entourage. "I hated that."
As we make our way to the new capital buildings traveling from island to island, Toribiong notes that the Japanese built the bridges and the smooth roads we’re driving on were paved with American money. Palau is a small country with a population of about 20,000, spread out over 250 islands — but 70 percent live in the capital, Koror. Once colonized by the Japanese, Palau became a World War II battleground; the Allied Forces won, but at a high cost. There are still about 100 U.S. servicemen deemed "missing in action," and for the last 20 years, U.S. volunteers belonging to a group called the BentProp Project, have been searching for information about their remains.
In 1994, the country gained its independence and became the Republic of Palau, signing what’s known as a "Compact of Free Association" with the U.S. government. Micronesia and The Marshall Islands have similar agreements, which means they receive millions in American aid in return for granting the U.S. a military monopoly in the region. "Friend of the U.S." is a term often mentioned in Palau and one of the reasons why Ambassador Fried paid Toribiong a house call in the spring of 2009.
As we stop our tour on a beach near the village where Toribiong grew up, he explains how the deal to accept six Uighur men from Guantanamo went down. "I didn’t know what the Uighur was, or is. Never heard of a Uighur before. What’s a Uighur?" he recalls asking Fried. What he did know almost immediately after meeting Fried and his small delegation was that he wanted to help Obama. "I was very, very anxious to say yes immediately when they asked me at the ambassador’s house. I was in office only for six months," he tells me. "I really wanted to help the United States. I wanted to do something for them because normally we’re on the receiving end."
Toribiong said Fried impressed him. "He speaks very concisely. He’s to the point, with a sense of sincerity… I knew it was a sincere request from the United States president." Obama later thanked him directly at a reception after a United Nations meeting. Toribiong said his first words to him as they clasped hands were, "Thank you for the Uighurs."
It didn’t take long for Toribiong to give Fried a commitment — only the time needed for him to meet with the island’s two tribal chiefs and a few members of his administration — about four hours. He came back with two conditions: this must be temporary, just a way to get the Uighurs out of their illegal detention in Guantanamo while a permanent home is sought; and a Palauan delegation needed to travel to Guantanamo to meet the men first. Fried agreed and they shook hands.
In the fall of 2009, a U.S. C-17 military transport aircraft carrying dozens of guards and six shackled Uighur detainees, landed on Palau’s small airstrip in the middle of the night without lights. The whole operation was supposed to be secret until the men were settled in their new home — a near impossible feat in a chatty place like Koror. The deal had leaked months earlier and everyone was just waiting for the day they would arrive.
Palauans were understandably unsure about accepting men from Guantanamo, which had a reputation for holding "the worst of the worst." Toribiong calls it the post-9/11 "beard fear factor" — which wasn’t exactly allayed when the six men arrived with a small army of U.S. military escorts. But the former president said he was less worried about the risk the men would pose than reprisals from China. "Are the Chinese going to show up and kill them? Are they going to retaliate against Palau?" They were the same questions the Uighur detainees asked when the Palauan delegation met them earlier that year in Guantanamo’s "Camp Iguana," the detention facility where they were being held. As the government officials talked about Palau, the men looked at a world map and were alarmed to see its proximity to China. The officials assured them that Palau had the full backing of the U.S. military.
The Kafkaesque last decade for Guantanamo’s 22 Uighurs began when they fled China’s persecution, to Afghanistan, one of the few Central Asian countries that will not deport Uighur refugees. They were captured by Pakistani forces when they tried to flee the U.S. bombing campaign after 9/11, and were turned over to U.S. authorities for a bounty of $5,000 each.
Ahmad Abdulahad, one of the men now in Palau, faced an especially brutal fate in the custody of Uzbek commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum before he was transferred to the Americans. He says he was separated from his pregnant wife and two-year-old son in Kabul, seeking shelter for his family, when he was captured. Held first in a coffin-like cell in a prison near Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, Abdulahad barely survived a prison revolt by Taliban inmates. He said he did not take part, but instead hid underground until he smelled gasoline and realized the prison was being set ablaze. U.S. forces quelled the riot, but during the chaos his leg was severely injured. Dozens died. By the time Abdulahad was moved to Guantanamo in 2002, his leg was beyond saving. It was amputated in the U.S. Navy hospital. It’s not all he lost. His family would not know of his whereabouts until four years later, in 2006, and not be reunited again until 2009, when he arrived in Palau to meet his 8-year-old daughter for the first time.
"Shortly after we were brought over to Gitmo, we were told that we were innocent, we were ‘at the wrong place at the wrong time,’" Abdulahad told me when we met earlier this year. But then came the Iraq war and the Bush administration needed China’s support at the U.N. In December 2001, when the men were captured, the United States did not list a little-known Uighur group, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), as a terrorist organization. But on Sept. 3, 2002, one week after Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage traveled to Beijing, and nine months after the men were captured, Washington designated ETIM as such. "The U.S. listed ETIM and accused all the Uighurs in Guantanamo of being members solely as a political accommodation to secure China’s support for the war in Iraq," claims Abdulahad’s lawyer, Seema Saifee. An Aug. 2, 2004 Federal Bureau of Investigation document obtained by lawyers for the men appears to support the theory. "US officers were considering whether to return the Uighurs to the Chinese, possibly to gain support for anticipated US action in the Middle East. The Uighur detainees at GTMO were convinced that they would immediately be executed if they were returned to China," the memo states. By 2011, the ETIM was off the U.S. terrorist entity list.
Abdulahad remembers when Fried came to Guantanamo to talk about the Palau deal. "One day the MPs came and told us that some high-level official from Washington will come and meet with us and it is very important," he told me. The meeting took place in Camp Iguana on Aug. 3, 2009. Fried explained the deal to the men in the sweltering Cuban heat, sitting on the opposite side of the detention center’s chain link fence. "He said, ‘President Obama appointed me for shutting down Gitmo. I found one country in Pacific Ocean and I need at least four of you to go there for a temporarily settlement.’ He promised that it is just for a short period of time until he finds a better country to take us," said Abdulahad.
He recalls being reluctant to go, worried about his prosthetic leg and Palau’s health care system. "But, I thought, I have been apart from my wife and children so long. A woman alone raising two children by herself — I should come out with the first opportunity and try to re-unite with my family as
soon as possible." In the end, Abdulahad and five of his compatriots agreed to go to Palau. (Of the original 22 Uighurs, five had been resettled in Albania under the Bush administration. Four others went to Bermuda in 2009. Two were later resettled in El Salvador and two in Switzerland. Three remain in Gitmo, having turned down the Palau deal.)
Fried’s main obstacle in finding Guantanamo’s Uighurs refuge was China’s economic and political reprisals, which is why creative diplomacy was required. After the Uighurs arrived in Palau, Toribiong says he received only verbal reprimands from China. The first came in 2010, during a canoe festival in nearby Yap, an island in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). FSM’s ambassador to China had sent him a message to meet him on a boat parked beside the hotel where they were staying. "We sat down and ordered water to drink and he gave me a bunch of books about Uighurs as terrorists and he read from a written statement: ‘These are terrorists, you’re interfering with internal affairs in China,’" Toribiong recalled. "I said, ‘Well, don’t focus on Palau. Focus on the United States. They’re our guests from the United States. All we did was to come with a humanitarian gesture. We have no qualms with [China].’" Toribiong said he agreed to the deal in part because of Palau’s tradition of taking in "drift relatives" — a custom of welcoming refugees that wash upon the islands’ shores.
Toribiong lost re-election to Tommy Remengesau last year. Guantanamo had become a hot election topic and some believe it was Toribiong’s deal for the Uighurs that lost him the presidency. There were allegations against him because he had housed the Uighurs in an apartment owned by his sister-in-law, which he renovated with state funds to accommodate all six of them. Toribiong defends his actions, saying he needed to move quickly and quietly to find a secure and U.S. approved location, and that there was no time for competitive bids. He dismisses the criticism as political opportunism. A conflict-of-interest case is now before the courts.
I met the new president on a warm February afternoon, on the sandy patio of his waterfront home, which is shielded from the road by a barrier of mangroves. His grandchildren were playing inside; a rusty treadmill sat outside in the corner near a row of shiny conch shells. "Ah, you’re the one everyone says is a spy," Remengesau tells me when I say I’m here about the Uighurs. Laughing, I assure him I talk too much to be a secret agent. This, is a gossipy island where news travels fast, if not always accurately.
Remengesau tells me he never would have signed the deal in 2009, that the humanitarian gesture was tainted by the financial gain of the agreement. The United States paid almost $600,000 to help Palau house the six men — funds that have since run out. But that was pocket change compared to the renegotiation of the financial aid pact with Palau, which was set to expire. Washington agreed to give $250 million over the next 15 years — but the payments are stalled before Congress. "The Palauan culture is to accept people who by some act of nature were unfortunate so they came, so they don’t have a choice unless we help them. It does not involve some sort of waving a carrot or financial gain. That’s already different from our culture. If there was no money involved I can truly say it was for culture. But when there was money involved, there is a choice. If you had said no to the money the Uighurs would have been somewhere else," says Remengesau.
"If you ask me, the majority of the Palauan people are not in support of this settlement, when things were not explained well. Certainly, since they may support temporary relocation there really was no timetable, no plan on how these people would be sustained or supported…. The temporary period is becoming like a permanent stay."
Today, the men have jobs, have married, or been reunited with their families. From the outside, this may look like a pretty good life. But the men say living in Palau feels like an extension of their prison. They feel like outsiders, always known as "the guys from Guantanamo."
Only one of the men has managed to escape. Adel Noori secured a fake passport, and posing as a businessman boarded a flight last November to join his wife and children in Turkey. The other five remain trapped — their tragedy compounded this March when the 22 month-old son of one of the men, Abdulghappar Abdulrahman, fell from a balcony and died.
"The people may think that we brought them to this beautiful island. Thousands of tourists love to come here. It is true that the place is absolutely beautiful here," Abdulahad said. "But if we are not satisfied here, then even the beautiful things look not that attractive anymore. People may think it is a paradise here but for us it is a prison. We are stateless."
Fried says that despite his new position he will continue to work to find permanent homes for the Uighur men elsewhere. "We made a deal and I plan to honor it," he wrote me in an email. "We’re not done."
"We wrote letters to Dan Fried so many times and pleaded him to help us and each and every time he answered by saying that he is not forgotten about us and he is still remembering us," says Abdulahad. "So what if he remembers us? We appreciate that he did not forget about us but what good does that do for us?"
* * *
Three days after Fried returned to Washington in June 2009 with Toribiong’s commitment on the Uighurs, he was on a plane with Gregory Craig, the former Obama White House counsel who helped negotiate the deal, and a small delegation from the State Department and the Pentagon, to another warm, island locale. With all eyes on Palau, a deal was quietly in the works with Bermuda. Secrecy was one of the priorities.
There was reason to worry about a leak, as anything about Guantanamo tended to spark political controversy. In October 2008, Washington, D.C. Federal District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled that the Uighurs’ Guantanamo detention was unconstitutional and ordered the men released into the United States. Uighur communities in Virginia and Florida were prepared to offer the men refuge. But Congress, gripped by NIMBY-ism, protested the prospect of these men living in their districts. "We had decided that slowly but surely we were going to bring some Uighurs to the United States to strengthen Dan’s arguments with our friends in Europe. We had agreed to take some; they should too," Craig told me. "The Senate Republicans started accusing Obama of bringing terrorists into our neighborhoods. It was perhaps the most irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric going at the time. They should have known better. This was nothing but a political shot."
Sabin Willet, an attorney who represented four of the Uighurs, is critical also of how Obama responded to the outcry. "The heat became enormous. The White House didn’t manage it at all. They didn’t get out in front of it and say, ‘No, no, no, these are people who have been cleared.’ They were just silent."
It was with this political backdrop that Willet got a call from Craig in early June 2009, raising the prospect of Bermuda. Craig had learned that Bermuda was eager to do the new president a favor. "I said the equivalent of, ‘Yeah right, that’s going to happen,’" Willet recalls.
But plans moved quickly. There was no time for Willet to visit his clients in Guantanamo so he got their consent by phone. On June 9, he was in Bermuda buying shorts for the men. The next day, he met with Fried, Craig, Bermuda’s Premier Ewart Brown, and Lt. Col. David Burch, the island’s Home Affairs Minister. The American delegation arrived in that morning, had an agreement by the afternoon, and lef
t for Gitmo that night. "There had been some preliminary work so we weren’t starting from scratch," Fried recalls. "That night, everyone was in a Bermudan plane headed for Guantanamo. We landed; 90 minutes later we took off, with four Uighurs."
Willet said no one slept on the flight aboard a swanky Gulfstream jet. "I had brought a bunch books from Bermuda with maps and magazines and stuff. I brought a bunch of children’s books too, picture books, just to have them put in their bags for their first English training. Everyone was excited…. I remember we saw dolphins as we were coming into the airport. We came in and, of course, all the lawyers are scrambling for their blackberries to see if this has leaked. And it hasn’t leaked. And we pull to the end of the runway where there’s a private arrivals area for private jets and nobody else is there, it’s 7 in the morning, there’s no press there, nobody knows."
The four men had a few hours of privacy to settle into a little pink cottage on the water before Premier Brown held a press conference. Reaction, as predicted, was swift. Opposition politicians in Bermuda worried about the effect on tourism. Opposition politicians in the United States went full-on Fox News effect. "The American people have made clear their feelings about bringing terrorist detainees to the United States, their concerns about the ability of these people to travel and the administration’s plans to ensure the proper monitoring of the terrorists should also be addressed. The administration clearly owes the nation some answers on its Guantanamo efforts," said Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
The morning after the press conference, I knocked on door of their new cliffside home, holding a photo I had taken just two weeks before in Guantanamo. On June 1, 2009, I had been part of a small group of journalists touring Camp Iguana when we were approached by one of the Uighur detainees who came up to the fence surrounding his compound. After 25 trips reporting from Guantanamo over the years, I found the tightly controlled tour numbingly routine. This was a rare unscripted moment. "Who’s in charge?" the detainee asked in English, as we stood mute, abiding by the Pentagon’s rules forbidding us from communicating with detainees. Other detainees emerged and knowing that we couldn’t respond, staged Guantanamo’s first public protest — quickly flipping pages from an art notepad where they had written messages, as we clicked away, careful not to photograph the men’s faces or any identifying features — another Gitmo rule. "We need to freedom," read one page in broken English.
Inside the Bermudian cottage was Abdullah Abdulqadir, the man who had approached us, and Khalil Mahmut, who had been holding one of the protest signs. They held the photo I brought and posed for another — with beaming smiles this time. We spent their first full day of freedom together, fishing, having lunch; the men were in awe of their new surroundings. "How can I express it?" Abdulqadir asked me. "This may be a small island. But it has a big heart."
Like the Uighurs in Palau, all four have married Muslim women who came to Bermuda and most have had children in the four years since. But also like their former cellmates, they have had trouble moving on. Mahmut may look like the picture of freedom today, expertly negotiating the island’s narrow twisty streets on his motorcycle. He has gone to school, made friends, and has a decent construction job. But during a couple of visits with the men last year, it was clear they were frustrated by the lack of passports — or any papers at all — which means they haven’t been able to leave the island. "Leaving the rock" is a mental necessity, say those who live in Bermuda, which from a high enough vantage post can be viewed coast to coast.
Like the men in Palau, they remain stateless — both Britain and Bermuda refuse to grant them citizenship.
* * *
The Uighur cases required that Fried be diplomatically agile since the men could not return to China, but every country had its challenges. The most problematic was, and remains, Yemen. "The problem of Guantanamo will not be solved until the problem of Yemen is solved," says Fried. So far, it’s gone nowhere. The Christmas Day plot by Abdulmutallab — the so-called "underwear bomber" — prompted Obama to issue the January 2010 ban on transferring any Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. The interagency task force had cleared 26 Yemenis for repatriation, subject to appropriate security measures, and another 30 to be conditionally transferred, assuming the first cases went without incident. The ban meant 56 detainees were taken off Fried’s to-do list.
In the summer of 2009, before the moratorium was issued, I had traveled to Sanaa to interview former Guantanamo detainees and see what might be waiting for future returnees.
Yemen is a chaotic, poor country, on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, famous for its gingerbread architecture and Arab hospitality; a violent and hardsrcabble land where most of the male population and an increasing number of women kicks back every afternoon to consume the leafy narcotic qat. Among the former Guantanamo detainees living there was Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver — one of seven detainees who have been tried or pleaded guilty before Guantanamo’s military commissions. Convicted of material support for terrorism, Hamdan was given a 66-month sentence. But with credit for the 61 months he had already served in Gitmo, he returned to Yemen in November 2008. Last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned his conviction, ruling that material support for terrorism was not a recognized international war crime at the time of his actions.
Hamdan welcomed me into his small home on an August evening in 2009, and we sat on cushions drinking fruit punch, as his two giggling daughters used Crayola markers to decorate my hands in a henna design. Like so many others in Sanaa, Hamdan was trying to get a job — working part-time as a taxi driver. He said he didn’t believe he was actually leaving Guantanamo until he was on the plane. "I had blacked-out goggles and earphones and was shackled and handcuffed," he told me about his flight back to Yemen. "But the guards were good to me and allowed me to walk with their assistance."
Although his case was certainly widely covered in Yemen and he continued to be monitored by the intelligence service, he was but one of dozens, if not hundreds, of Yemeni men with a jihadist past. And while the issue of returning fighters was paramount in the West, Yemen had bigger problems to deal with — unemployment, lack of water, political unrest, and general poverty.
The country simply lacked the means to effectively support those who were returning after years in Guantanamo. When I arrived, the country’s once-touted rehabilitation program was no more. Instead I found something else that Fried had mentioned: Guantanamo’s potential to become a tool for recruitment.
It was evident as I watched the young men who came and went during an afternoon qat session in the home of Abdul Salem al Hilal, one of Guantanamo’s "high-value detainees." The popular tribal leader and businessman was snatched from his Cairo hotel room in 2002 and interrogated about alleged al Qaeda connections in the CIA’s covert black sites, until he was transferred to Guantanamo in 2006, where he remains. The walls around his Sanaa home were covered in posters calling for his release. "We don’t oppose any trial if it is fair. Let everyone measure up to their responsibility," his
brother Nabil told me, adding that he felt confident a trial would show his brother’s innocence. The men sitting around the room all nodded in agreement, their cheeks bulging with qat.
What was clear during that visit more than three years ago was that Hilal’s detention without trial was spreading anti-Western sentiments, not just to his immediate relatives, but distant ones too, waves of anger that were washing over his neighborhood and his family’s tribe. Strip away legal and moral concerns about Guantanamo’s indefinite detentions and therein lies the national security dilemma. Is the long-term risk greater by releasing these men, or keeping them locked up?
Andrea Prasow, a former defense attorney for Guantanamo’s military commissions and now senior counterterrorism analyst with Human Rights Watch has worked closely with Fried on Guantanamo issues, and is critical of the Obama administration’s Yemen policy. "The Yemenis are being held because other people did bad things. That’s just not a basis to hold someone," said Prasow when we spoke recently in Washington. "Look what’s happening in Afghanistan, in Mali. The idea is that these men, who are aging rapidly in Guantanamo, will pose some serious risk to the U.S. if released, when they didn’t in the first place? They’d been cleared for transfer because they are not dangerous. They have not been accused of a crime."
On April 16, relatives of some of the Yemeni detainees held a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. "The Americans say they hold our sons to rehabilitate them. They can return them to us and we could take care of them," one woman told a reporter with Agence France Press.
But Yemen is not the only country that has posed a problem, complicating Guantánamo’s closure plans. There’s Algeria. Prasow considers herself a "Fried-fan," but when it comes to Algeria, she says, "we will never see eye to eye."
Four Algerian detainees have been repatriated under the Obama administration — but the forcible return of one in particular, Abdul Aziz Naji, had human rights groups criticizing Fried and the Obama administration. "A prisoner who begs to stay indefinitely at the Guantanamo Bay detention center rather than be sent back to Algeria probably has a strong reason to fear the welcoming reception at home," a July 2010 New York Times editorial read. The administration fought Naji’s opposition up to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear his appeal. Hours after the decision, Naji was on a flight to a country he had not seen in 11 years.
The editorial described the move as "an act of cruelty that seems to defy explanation," and reported that Naji had disappeared upon arrival and his family feared for his safety. Fried, to put it lightly, was not pleased by the editorial. He claimed Naji had not disappeared but was in custody for few days, as all returning detainees had been, and would be brought before a magistrate and released. An "update" was later appended to the editorial online reflecting the fact he had been released.
But there was no doubt Naji had vigorously protested his return to Algeria. He had served in the Algerian military in the 1990s in that country’s prolonged and ruthless war with hardline Islamist groups. He feared retaliation if returned and did not trust that the Algerian government could do anything to protect him; but he also didn’t trust the assurances given to the United States that he would be treated humanely by the government, given his detention in Guantanamo. "When he talked about the fear of going back to Algeria it was of both the government and terrorists," says his American lawyer Ellen Lubell. "He said he would be ‘dancing between fires.’"
Lubell and her partner Doris Tennant, who specialize in non-profit law, family law and intellectual property, took on Naji’s case pro bono, throwing themselves into the unfamiliar world of national security and human rights. They had gotten to know Naji during their visits to Guantanamo, fondly recalling the day that they cooked an Algerian meal and ate together in the prison as they talked. They had fought for years to keep him away from Algeria, even traveling to Switzerland, where an asylum application had been filed.
"A big problem of course with these cases is that you couldn’t get a decision from a U.S. court or a statement from an official that says this guy’s not guilty. Nobody would give us that assurance," said Lubell. "Even the notion of ‘cleared,’ you know, that doesn’t mean what people want it to mean. Even though our client wasn’t charged with anything. There was nothing we could give them. There was no way the United States was going to give one millimeter on that issue so of course this cloud hangs over all of these guys, including our client who was cleared (by the Pentagon) long ago."
"We were hoping that as things looked scarier for forcible repatriation," said Lubell, "that Fried would just get on the phone with someone in Switzerland and say ‘can you make this happen?’"
Although Naji was released after a few days in custody upon his return to Algeria, he was later charged with "past membership in a group overseas." Last year, he was convicted and given a three-year sentence in a 15-minute proceeding, where according to Lubell, no evidence was presented. "Some of the [Guantanamo] lawyers have come to conclude their guys did bad some things," said Tennant. "We came to the conclusion that our client didn’t do anything to harm to the United States and he wasn’t a terrorist."
Fried disagrees with Lubell and Tennant’s notion that all it would take was a phone call from him to settle Naji elsewhere. He also says he’s still comfortable with Algeria’s reassurances that returning detainees will be treated fairly. Had Naji not been repatriated when he was, he could have been blocked now by Congress’s restrictions, he argues. "A two-year jail sentence versus another 10 years or the rest of his life in Gitmo? I’d rather be in an Algerian prison with the prospect of getting out," he said.
But there may have also been a diplomatic dance going on — with precious few spots to resettle detainees, Fried had to push for repatriations where possible. I asked him if his decision to send Naji back over his objections was in an effort not offend Algeria and avoid using up a spot in Switzerland. If he didn’t want to leave Guantanamo for Algeria, why force him?
"I’m sure the Algerians would not appreciate the implication they were a country we could not send anybody under the [U.N] Convention against Torture. I understand that. I don’t mind offending a country that in fact would fall afoul of the Convention against Torture. I’m not going to mind offending Uzbekistan — read our human rights reports. You couldn’t send somebody back to Uzbekistan," he told me. "I would not want to imply Algeria is on the wrong side of that criteria. I don’t believe in offending countries for the wrong reason. I can live with offense, but not when it’s unmerited and there’s got to be a damn good reason. Come to me with any evidence of mistreatment of any detainee that has come back. Naji? Well maybe, but you haven’t come to me with this?"
* * *
By early 2011, Fried had time on his hands. With the Yemen detainees in limbo and the NDAA blocking transfers, his job had gone from an international salesman to more of a bored bureaucrat. He was given an additional role later that year — another Clinton favor, almost as controversial and complicated as the Guantanamo post.
as tasked with wading into the debate over the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen Khalq, known as the MEK, and the humanitarian plight of its members in Iraq. The history of the Iranian group, which some have called more of a cult than a resistance movement, goes back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution when the MEK lost a power struggle against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Exiled members, based for in Iraq for years due to the group’s alliance with Saddam Hussein, were threatened after the U.S. invasion gave rise to Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government, with its close ties to Iran. More than 3,000 members were living on a base known as Camp Ashraf about 40 miles from the Iranian border, and the United States was attempting to relocate them to a new safe location near Baghdad airport known as "Camp Liberty." The U.N. High Commission for Refugees sought refuge for them elsewhere.
Meanwhile, with an unprecedented lobbying effort in Washington that included a former director of the FBI, a former attorney general, and former secretary of Homeland Security, the group was fighting to get its name off the U.S. terrorist list, arguing that the 1997 listing was dated and they were now a peaceful resistance movement. A federal court had given Clinton an Oct. 1, 2012 deadline to decide. Fried was appointed the "Special Advisor to the Secretary on Camp Ashraf" and traveled to Iraq to help with the move — one of the conditions of delisting the group. Shortly after the last convoy of 680 members arrived in Camp Liberty in September, Clinton removed the MEK from the terrorist list. Once again, Fried had put his relocation skills to work.
But to good end? Obama’s former national security advisor, Jim Jones, reportedly told an MEK-sponsored luncheon, sponsored by the Iranian American Cultural Society of Michigan, which advocated on behalf of the group, that the name of the camp should be changed to "Camp Shame." Jones called it more of a "prison than a camp," according to a report in Foreign Policy, adding that detainees in Guantánamo "are treated far better."
Fried packed up his office in early February, removing the laughing Hillary and dancing Condi from the wall, and making sure the Guantánamo and MEK files went to the people who would carry on his work. He had been first approached for his new position monitoring sanctions for Iran and Syria after the re-election win last fall.
"You know in this business you don’t stay with a job forever," he told me after the appointment was announced. "I like new challenges." A framed copy of the cover of the "Final Report of the Guantánamo Review Task Force" — which recommended the remaining detainees who should be released — will represent his Gitmo years on the wall of his next office. "It isn’t art, but it is a symbol of the professionalism that did much to close GTMO under both (yes, both) Administrations and could have done more, were it not for toxic politics," he emailed me in explaining his decision.
Fried says he leaves both satisfied with his early years but frustrated at the end. "We actually managed to get a lot of people out, so that was qualified success, and that’s sometimes as good as it gets." He believes it made sense to move him elsewhere when the NDAA made his work almost impossible, and noted that there was an army of lawyers and diplomats behind him who will continue working to close Guantanamo and transfer the cleared men.
"The president’s policy was the right one — the original executive order [to close Guantanamo]. Yeah, the one year goal may not have been realistic, but without a deadline nothing happens in Washington," he told me. "It was a reasonable policy that had, at different times, bipartisan support, but fell victim to partisanship. I think where we are now is stuck and we have to wait for the political winds to shift so we can come to some more reasonable approach."
"It’s a great pity."