Last week, Molly Corso, a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia, got in touch with me regarding rumors that the Georgian government was considering accepting a number of cleared prisoners from Guantánamo, in connection with an article that was published this week. In September, in an interview with Fox News, President Mikheil Saakashvili explained that Georgia was “absolutely” willing to host prisoners from Guantánamo. “You know, whatever we can do to help America in its war on terror, we will do,” he said.
Although officials have been cagey about the rumors — Corso reported that National Security Council Secretary Eka Tkeshelashvili stated only that negotiations were “ongoing,” and refused to elaborate — she wanted to know what I thought about the rumors. I explained, as she described it, that “Many countries are unwilling to take the dozens of prisoners cleared for release because the United States itself has refused to resettle the inmates on US soil. The restriction has sent a mixed message about the prisoners and the security risk they would pose for host countries,” and, as a result, the US government is “trying to get anybody who will promise to treat these people humanely to take them.”
This was a fair précis, and appropriate for a news article, but to provide more background I’d like to explain that I had also elaborated on the “mixed messages” provided by the US government, pointing out, as I explained in a recent article, “Finding New Homes For 44 Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners”:
Recently, for example, when Swiss officials visited Guantánamo to investigate the cases of four men cleared for release, in an attempt to work out if they would be prepared to accept any of these men, they returned, not with an honest appraisal, but with weighted conclusions that could only have been presented to them by the US military. [Officials] had, in effect, opened up their files and shown them material which purported to be evidence, but which, in other prisoners’ habeas petitions, has been demonstrated, time and again, to be nothing more than false allegations made by other prisoners (under duress or as a result of bribery) or by the prisoners themselves, multiple levels of unacceptable hearsay, and “mosaics” of intelligence that do not stand up to independent scrutiny.
According to reports in the Swiss media, the government representatives concluded that, of the four men they investigated, two Uighurs were “low-risk,” even though they are no risk at all, having persuaded the Bush administration to drop its claims that they were “enemy combatants,” and having been cleared by military review boards under the Bush administration, by a US District Court, and by the Obama administration’s Task Force, and two other men, an Uzbek and a Palestinian — also cleared by Bush-era military review boards and by Obama’s Task Force — were considered “medium-risk” and “high-risk.”
These mixed messages — involving omissions and misrepresentation — remain disturbing, and suggest that, even with just two months remaining until Obama’s deadline for closing Guantánamo, the administration is still not doing all in its power to send out a coherent message about cleared prisoners — and to explain clearly, as I also said to Molly Corso, that the men in question do not pose any kind of threat.
As a result, a significant thrust of Corso’s article — how host countries are chosen — is revealed not as involving a specific policy, but, as I stated in my interview, involves the US government “trying to get anybody who will promise to treat these people humanely to take them.” Corso noted that “US State Department officials did not respond to requests to explain the Guantánamo Bay prisoner release program,” and she also spoke to Polly Rossdale, who monitors the resettlement program for the British legal charity Reprieve, who noted that, while some countries are “definitely a no-go,” the US government’s human rights criteria for potential host countries is not “clear.”
Georgia may well prove to be amenable to accepting cleared prisoners, because, as Eka Tkeshelashvili explained, “We try to be a cooperative partner in every way that we can: we do not only ask for the help of the United States. We try to be a contributing partner.” Lincoln Mitchell, an assistant professor in international politics at New York’s Columbia University, was more forthright, explaining that he saw “the decision to take on the prisoners as a chance for [President] Saakashvili to underscore his strong relationship with the White House — a crucial part of the Georgian leader’s domestic image.” He told Corso, “If a big part of [the government’s message] is we have a special relationship with the United States, you have to be able to demonstrate that. This is one way to demonstrate it.”
It was reassuring that Eka Tkeshelashvili also stated, as Molly Corso described it, that “the Georgian government believes that housing terrorism suspects would pose no enhanced domestic security threat” — as this ought to be the crucial issue — but in fact, the dithering and double standards from the US regarding the rehousing of prisoners who have been cleared for release from Guantánamo means that, ultimately, what it comes down to is politics, and whether, as in Georgia’s case, helping the US out of a hole of its own making will enhance Georgia’s relationship with the US.
As ever with Guantánamo, it appears that the legacy of the “War on Terror” is not honesty, but expediency.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about my film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.