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Saudi prisoner release gives U.S. pause

Times Staff Writers

U.S. officials, apparently caught off guard by the Saudi government’s recent release of more than two dozen former Guantanamo Bay prisoners, are voicing fears that the men will join the camp of violent extremist groups.

The Saudis released the 29 men from jail for observance of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and atonement, with instructions to return to custody by the end of this month.

Saudi officials said that although the men were still under investigation for possible terrorist ties, they were not considered serious threats. “Throwing people in jail and letting them rot is not the answer,” said Nail Jubeir, spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

But the commander at the sprawling camp here for suspected terrorists is skeptical.

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“I’m interested in if they go back to the fight,” said Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. He contends that about 50 of 300 men released since Guantanamo became a prison in 2002 for terrorism suspects have resumed plotting against U.S. interests worldwide, but could identify only one confirmed example.

The kingdom’s decision to temporarily release the 29 men illustrates the limits of U.S. influence as the Bush administration seeks to shrink the population of Guantanamo by transferring prisoners to other nations. And it underscores how differently the U.S. and other countries, including Britain and Germany, perceive the danger posed by former detainees.

Of the 437 captives at the U.S. naval base in Cuba, 110 have been cleared for release to their home countries, and more are being added to the list. Officials have said fewer than 100 prisoners will face military tribunals, leaving 200 or more to be repatriated.

Guantanamo has come under increasing criticism from U.S. allies and is dogged by allegations of prisoner abuse. Administration officials say that the camp will be needed for the foreseeable future, but that the ultimate goal is to shut it down.

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Some nations have refused to accept Guantanamo detainees, denying responsibility for them or balking at U.S. demands for elaborate security measures on transferred prisoners.

Critics say the problem has been exacerbated by U.S. failure to plan earlier for releasing prisoners. Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in President Bush’s first term, recalled repeated high-level meetings in which State Department officials pressed the Pentagon to explain its plans for releasing captives from the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.

Wilkerson, now a vocal critic of administration policies on terrorism, said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney “refused to deal with it. For these guys, there was never any idea of final disposition.”

In the cases of several British citizens, Wilkerson said, Rumsfeld wanted extensive security measures that the British government refused to accept. The British citizens were transferred anyway, and all were released.

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Spokespersons for Rumsfeld and Cheney maintained that the administration had worked steadily, in cooperation with U.S. allies, to release or repatriate detainees while trying to ensure they were treated humanely and wouldn’t pose threats later.

“The United States government has no desire to hold detainees any longer than necessary,” a Defense Department spokesman said.

More recently, the U.S. and its ally have clashed over nine men at Guantanamo who had lived in Britain but were not citizens. A British court case filed on behalf of the men opened a window on the process when top officials had to file statements, copies of which were obtained by The Times.

Earlier this year, according to court records, U.S. and British officials began discussing the possible release of the men. The British officials said the U.S. expected assurances of extensive, open-ended monitoring and surveillance before they would consider returning the men to Britain. The records show that U.S. officials sought guarantees that intelligence officials would know immediately if the men met with Islamic radicals or made threatening statements.

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Even if British officials conducted surveillance, used covert agents and intercepted phone calls, the measures would not have satisfied U.S. officials, according to a declaration by William Nye, head of Britain’s counter-terrorism and intelligence directorate.

“None of these techniques, individually or collectively, would have been able to provide the sort of guarantees sought by the U.S.,” Nye said.

The nine men, Nye told the court, were not considered enough of a danger to warrant diverting intelligence resources “from those who pose a greater threat to national security.”

An appeals court in London backed the British government, which also argued that it could not advocate on behalf of the nine detainees because they were not British citizens. The men remain at Guantanamo.

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Critics say the ruling served the interests of both U.S. and British officials by creating the appearance that the countries had tried to hammer out a transfer agreement but were thwarted by legal and security constraints.

“This represents a convenient cover for both parties,” said Brent Mickum, a Washington lawyer who represents two of the detainees.

British and U.S. officials declined to discuss any specifics of the diplomatic talks.

In another case, that of Murat Kurnaz, a Turk born and raised in Germany, officials in Berlin initially balked at taking him back after the U.S. approved his transfer in 2002. His case languished until this year, when the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, raised the issue with Bush.

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But the transfer was delayed for several more months, in part because of U.S. demands for extensive surveillance and other security measures to keep tabs on Kurnaz’s activities, according to interviews and European media reports.

The measures were rejected by German authorities because they would have created “a collision with German law,” said Bernhard Docke, the attorney handling Kurnaz’s case in Germany.

Kurnaz finally returned to his hometown of Bremen in August and was briefly placed under investigation for possible ties to Islamic extremists. The Germans have since dropped the case.

A spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

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Detainees from Saudi Arabia make up one of the largest groups at Guantanamo Bay. Saudi prisoners have come under particular scrutiny, in part because of the nation’s fundamentalist strain of Islam and the fact that 15 of the 19 men who hijacked airliners in the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi nationals.

So it was not surprising that the releases for Ramadan raised eyebrows among U.S. officials.

“We’re certainly hoping they don’t come back and haunt us,” said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Saudi officials said the men were released to their families to help rehabilitate them. “The idea is to slowly bring them back into the fold of society,” said Jubeir, the embassy spokesman.

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But Harris, the prison commander, says he has an obligation to know what becomes of the men in his custody. Part of his mission, he said, is to “keep enemy combatants off the battlefield.”

“I take it very seriously whether a detainee is going to get to go home or not,” he said.

carol.williams@latimes.com

rich.connell@latimes.com

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robert.lopez@latimes.com

Williams reported from Guantanamo Bay and Connell and Lopez from Los Angeles.


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