WikiLeaks Releases Cables on Guantánamo, Bagram, and Rendition: What Might Have Been

12/10/2010 01:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At least 50 U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks report on the U.S. government's contacts and negotiations with foreign governments over U.S. detainee policies, requests to resettle detainees, and follow-up on resettlements. We believe that the following examples, had they been shared or shared more broadly, could have helped build support among the American people for closing Guantánamo Bay prison.

In a 1/15/10 cable from Embassy Luxembourg, classified "confidential," the U.S. ambassador observed that former Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg "is doing our work for us, and his articulate, reasoned presentation makes for a convincing argument. It is ironic that after four years of imprisonment and alleged torture, Moazzam Begg is delivering the same demarche to [the government of Luxembourg] as we are: please consider accepting Guantánamo detainees for resettlement."

Several exchanges with Germany, France and China concern the resettlement of the Uighurs, whom Federal District Judge Ricardo Urbina had ordered released to the U.S. in 2008, to communities where homes and jobs awaited them. The cables bring to light the difficulty for European governments of angering China by accepting the men. For example, in a 12/7/09 confidential cable from Embassy Berlin, although the state secretary expressed a willingness "to consider the two Uighur cases on humanitarian grounds, [he] noted that they would present special difficulties because of the diplomatic row which would likely ensue." Switzerland eventually accepted two brothers as a humanitarian gesture, and the others were resettled in Bermuda and, temporarily, in Palau.

Several more exchanges report that courts in France, Spain, and Afghanistan who accepted detainees whom the U.S. assumed would then be imprisoned and prosecuted were ultimately released. For example, a 7/28/06 secret cable from Embassy Madrid explains how the Spanish court freed the "Spanish Taliban," Abderrahaman, after dismissing him as a threat. "In early 2005, a confidential police assessment shared with [U.S. government] officials concluded that Abderrahaman had the 'mental maturity of a 12-year-old,' was 'naïve and foolish,' and did not seem to comprehend the gravity of his detention in Guantánamo." The cable states further that "prosecutors had improperly translated Abderrahaman's statements and had omitted exculpatory evidence" such as "a document in which U.S. authorities allegedly acknowledged that Abderrahaman was not a member of al-Qa'ida."

A number of cables cover U.S. attempts at damage control, such as discussions with the Spanish government over Spanish National Court investigating judge Baltasar Garzon's plan to investigate "allegations the U.S. tortured terrorism detainees at Guantanamo." Then attorney general Alberto Gonzales and then Secretary of State legal advisor John Bellinger are among those who attempted to improve their audience's perceptions of U.S. detention policies. For example, a 2/15/06 confidential cable from Embassy Brussels relates that Bellinger assured his audience, falsely, that "most detainees have been picked up by our armed forces on foreign battlefields," although in truth most were sold to U.S. forces for bounties, having been picked up far from any battlefield. Bellinger also attempted to reassure his audience that the Combatant Status Review Tribunals had effectively determined which detainees should be released and which were dangerous.

But the single most pointed statement, repeated in some form by every government asked to resettle some detainees, is that it is a "pre-condition," or nearly so, that the U.S. accept some detainees first. The foreign governments' responses to our government's unwillingness to do so are predictable and show how the lack of U.S. support placed their governments in difficult circumstances as they tried to help the U.S. government clear up its mess. For example, "The French public wondered why France should accept detainees who were too dangerous to be transferred to the United States."

Finally, foreign diplomats did offer good advice that the U.S. government would be wise to heed. From the European Union (Brussels) on 2/25/09, a representative of Spain's government put it well:

"[She] highlighted the gap between public perceptions of the kinds of detainees at Guantanamo and the reality that many are very low risk. She felt that this was a message the U.S. had to carry, and urged the administration to 'plainly' explain to Americans (and thus Europeans) that while some detainees are very dangerous, many of them do not pose a serious threat. [She] also commented that whenever a European newspaper ran a story on Guantanamo, they ran the typical picture of a hunched-over detainee in an orange jumpsuit. She said that 'we need better pictures' and urged us to turn the story around by showing low-risk detainees in a better light."

The back-story in the cables is the enormous amount of work and the squandering of goodwill and foreign diplomacy over the U.S. government's past mistakes and current unwillingness to be a true international partner and to share in the problem-solving, rather than foist the entirety of problems of our government's own making upon our allies.