Terrorism Trials & Investigations

The Return of the Detainees to Algeria

By John Bellinger
Sunday, July 28, 2013, 9:31 PM

The White House announcement on Friday that the Defense Department plans to transfer two Algerian detainees held at Guantanamo to Algeria represents the most recent action in a long series of efforts by both the Bush and Obama Administrations to repatriate Algerian detainees from Guantanamo.  In previous years, both Administrations focused their public messaging on the humane treatment assurances they had received from the Algerian government that the detainees would not be mistreated upon their return.  This time, the Obama Administration is emphasizing the security assurances it has received from the Algerian government that the detainees will not return to the fight.

At the outset, I want to note that it is unusual and, in my view, inappropriate for the White House press secretary to issue a statement about the transfer of Guantanamo detainees.  Such routine statements should be issued by the Defense Department.  The elevation of the issue to the White House reflects the Obama Administration’s unfortunate continued politicization of the Guantanamo issue, about which I have recently posted.  The White House should stop politicizing Guantanamo (as should Congressional Republicans) and should instead reach out to Republicans for help to solve this vexing national security problem.

The Obama Administration has returned two other detainees to Algeria over the last three years, over their objections.  In 2010, the Washington Post reported that six Algerian detainees would rather stay in Guantanamo than be returned.  Nonetheless, the Administration transferred Aziz Abdul Naji to Algeria over his objection and the opposition of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, which has repeatedly criticized reliance on “diplomatic assurances” of humane treatment.  Administration officials rejected the criticisms as “abstract and unconvincing.”  In January 2011, the Administration transferred Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed to Algeria, also over his objection.

The Bush Administration held extensive discussions with the Algerian Government over Algerian detainees in Guantanamo.  During her visit to Algeria in September 2008, then Secretary Condoleezza Rice urged the Algerian Government both to agree to accept its detained nationals and to treat them humanely.  In a press conference in Algiers at the time, Secretary Rice emphasized with respect to Guantanamo that “The President has been clear that he would like to have it closed.   But we are going to do this in a way that is rigorous and that gets the protections that we need, and that the detainees need.”   I accompanied Secretary Rice on that trip, and she raised the same points in Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia.

Human rights groups, which had urged President Obama to rekindle his efforts to close Guantanamo, have so far refrained from criticizing the transfer of more detainees to Algeria.  Despite their previous excoriation of the Bush Administration and mild chiding of the Obama Administration for relying on diplomatic assurances for humane treatment, it may be that the human rights groups recognize that if Guantanamo is to be closed, detainees will need to be repatriated in many cases to their home countries with the best diplomatic assurances that the U.S. Government can secure.  While return to Algeria may not be ideal, it is better than indefinite detention in Guantanamo.

Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, have wasted no time in blasting the Administration for repatriating detainees who might “return to the battlefield.”  But these critics should recall that President Bush also wanted to close Guantanamo and his Administration transferred more than 530 detainees out of Guantanamo, including many to Algeria.  To my knowledge, none of the Algerian detainees have returned to the fight.  Congressional Republicans should recognize, as President Bush did, that it simply is not sustainable or consistent with American values for the United States to hold a large number of detainees for another ten, twenty, or fifty years.  Congressional Republicans should work with President Obama on a reasonable wind-down plan for Guantanamo.

Finally, I should note that two months after stating in his NDU speech that "I'm appointing a new senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries,” the President has still not appointed an envoy at DoD.  He has appointed Cliff Sloan, a well-qualified Washington lawyer with bipartisan ties, at the State Department, but the DoD position remains unfilled.  I am skeptical that a dedicated “envoy” is needed at DoD, but the Defense Department does need an empowered senior official to focus on Guantanamo after the departure of Bill Lietzau, the highly respected and conscientious Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs.