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Questioning ‘High’ Risk Gitmo Detainee Transfers

10:35 AM, Jul 13, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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On July 1, President Obama announced that he was nominating Matthew Olsen for the position of National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) director. Olsen has served in a number of national security-related government positions, including as the head of Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force.

tws-F-Gitmo detainees walki

As one of his first acts in office, Obama authorized the task force to review each Guantanamo detainee’s case files as his administration prepared to close down the detention facility within one year – a goal that proved to be unattainable for a variety of reasons. The task force made recommendations as to which detainees should be prosecuted (either in military commission or federal court), held indefinitely, or transferred to another country. (No detainees were approved for outright release.)

The task force approved most of the detainees remaining at Guantanamo for transfer, clearing the way for the Obama administration to empty most of the detention facility’s cells.

But a review of leaked detainee threat assessments reveals that many of the detainees approved for transfer by the task force were deemed “high” risks by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the detention and interrogation of detainees. Moreover, JTF-GTMO recommended that most of these detainees be retained in U.S. custody – precisely the opposite of the task force’s recommendations.

The NCTC’s director position requires Senate confirmation. So will senators question Olsen’s role on the task force, and the task force’s willingness to approve a large number of “high” risk detainees for transfer?

Comparing the task force’s decisions to JTF-GTMO’s recommendations

In its final report, dated January 22, 2010, Olsen’s task force reported that 126 detainees, out of a total of 240, were “approved for transfer.” An additional 30 Yemeni detainees were “designated for ‘conditional’ detention based on the current security environment” in their home country. The 30 Yemenis were “not approved for repatriation to Yemen” at the time, “but may be transferred to third countries, or repatriated to Yemen in the future if the current moratorium on transfers to Yemen is lifted and other security conditions are met.” (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009, less than one month before the task force’s report was finalized. The “moratorium on transfers to Yemen” was put in place only after the failed attack.)

Therefore, the task force approved a total of 156 Guantanamo detainees for transfer – or 65 percent of the total detainee population.

Compare the task force’s results with JTF-GTMO’s recommendations.

In late April, 765 JTF-GTMO detainee threat assessments were leaked online. THE WEEKLY STANDARD has been able to match 239 of these threat assessments to detainees that the New York Times has identified as being held at Guantanamo on Obama’s inauguration day. The Times’s data is available online in its “Guantanamo Docket” – an online repository of declassified Guantanamo documents and other information. In all likelihood, the Times’ list does not precisely match the detainees reviewed by the task force. But it is the best available list as the government does not publish a definitive list of detainees held at Guantanamo – and it is certainly a very close match.    

JTF-GTMO determined that 179 of the 239 detainees (75 percent) were “high” security risks to the U.S. and its allies. JTF-GTMO also recommended that 173 of these detainees (72 percent) be retained in the Department of Defense’s custody.

The leaked JTF-GTMO documents do not contain a recommendation for an additional 9 detainees in our study. But in 8 of these 9 instances, JTF-GTMO identified the detainee as a “high” risk, making it likely that JTF-GTMO recommended these 8 detainees for continued detention. If we add these 8 detainees to the 173 detainees JTF-GTMO recommended for continued detention, then JTF-GTMO likely recommended a total of 181 detainees (76 percent) held at Guantanamo on Obama’s first day in office be retained in DoD custody – and not transferred.

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