State Dept. Closes Office Working on Shutting Guantánamo Prison

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FORT MEADE, Md. -- The State Department on Monday reassigned Daniel Fried, the special envoy for closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and will not replace him, according to an internal personnel announcement. Mr. Fried's office is being closed, and his former responsibilities will be "assumed" by the office of the department's legal adviser, the notice said.

The announcement that no senior official in President Obama's second term will succeed Mr. Fried in working primarily on diplomatic issues aimed at repatriating or resettling detainees appeared to signal that the administration does not currently see the closing of the Guantánamo Bay prison as a realistic priority, despite repeated statements that it still intends to do so.

Mr. Fried will become the department's coordinator for sanctions policy and will work on issues including Iran and Syria.

The announcement came as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other Guantánamo Bay detainees facing death penalty charges before a military tribunal over the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made their first public appearance since October on Monday, sitting quietly in a high-security courtroom at the naval base in Cuba as pretrial hearings resumed. A closed-circuit feed of the proceedings was also shown at Fort Meade.

Mr. Mohammed, with a red-dyed beard and turban, wore a camouflage jacket over white garb. All five detainees spoke briefly in telling the judge, Col. James Pohl of the Army, that they understood their right not to attend future days of the hearing. Only one detainee, Walid bin Attash, spoke further, complaining through an interpreter that the defendants were not motivated to attend because "the prosecution does not want us to hear or understand or say anything."

The session mainly focused on technical matters like nuances in an order governing the handling of classified information. Toward the end of the day, the video feed was interrupted for nearly a minute. It was not clear why the censorship button had been pushed; Colonel Pohl appeared upset and said no classified information had been discussed. Later this week, he is scheduled to take up a defense motion asking him to order the government to preserve evidence at any still-existing "black site" prisons where the Central Intelligence Agency previously held and interrogated the detainees.

Mr. Fried's special envoy position was created by the Obama administration in early 2009, shortly after Mr. Obama took office and promised to close the military prison in his first year. Mr. Fried spent several years traveling the world overseeing the repatriation of low-level detainees and persuading other countries to resettle detainees who had been cleared for release but who could not be sent home.

But the flow of detainees out of Guantánamo has slowed almost to a halt as Congress has imposed a series of restrictions on transfers, leaving Mr. Fried with less to do. He was eventually assigned to work on resettling a group of Iranian exiles who were members of a group known as the M.E.K. in a refugee camp in Iraq, in addition to his Guantánamo duties.

Besides barring the transfer of any detainees into the United States for prosecution or continued detention, lawmakers prohibited transferring them to other countries with troubled security conditions, like Yemen or Sudan. In the most recent defense authorization act, enacted late last year, lawmakers extended those restrictions and expanded them to cover even detainees scheduled to be repatriated under a plea deal with military prosecutors.

Mr. Obama had threatened to veto the bill, but instead he signed it while issuing a signing statement claiming that he had the constitutional power, as commander in chief, to lawfully override such statutory restrictions on the handling of wartime prisoners. Mr. Obama's intentions were not clear, however, even to internal administration officials.

Last July, before the latest statute, the Pentagon repatriated a Sudanese man, Ibrahim al Qosi, after he pleaded guilty before a tribunal to conspiracy and supporting terrorism and served out his sentence as part of a deal. Another Sudanese man who pleaded guilty to similar charges, Noor Uthman Muhammed, is scheduled to be repatriated in about a year. There is now doubt, however, about whether the military can live up to its agreement with him.

In recent months, the federal appeals court in the District of Columbia has vacated guilty verdicts by tribunals against two other detainees convicted of similar charges -- the only two detainees to date to be convicted after a trial, rather than through a plea deal -- because the offenses were not international war crimes.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. decided to continue arguing in court that it was lawful to bring such charges before a military commission. That has led to a growing split between the administration and Brig. Gen. Mark S. Martins, the chief prosecutor of the tribunals, who objected to that decision and unsuccessfully sought permission to withdraw conspiracy from the list of charges against the Sept. 11 defendants.

On Sunday, on the eve of the hearing, General Martins addressed recent coverage of the split in The New York Times. He argued that any disagreement was a good thing because it showed that tribunal officials were not "moving in lock step," but rather were independent, which, he argued, "if anything bolsters, rather than undermines, confidence in the military commissions system."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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