Prisoners Dilemma

by Michael Crowley | June 17, 2009

Daniel Fried may have the most thankless job in Washington. While Barack Obama got to deliver the dazzling promise that he would close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and turn the page on America's global image, Fried has been left to handle the hardest part of that task: finding new homes for the Guantanamo detainees who, for political or legal reasons, can neither be tried nor imprisoned in the United States. Perhaps half the 240 detainees now in custody will have to be relocated to countries other than their native lands because they risk being tortured there (or worse) upon their return. For Fried, that means shuttling endlessly between foreign capitals to plead for help, and often to be met by extortionist demands and haughty lectures from foreign diplomats. It is grueling work, making the respected career diplomat something like a door-to-door salesman peddling the human equivalent of radioactive waste.

But perhaps the hardest part is handling the obstacles that keep cropping up in Washington itself. First, there's the ticking clock of Barack Obama's pledge to shut Guantanamo by January 2010--a bold statement that defied the warnings of advisers who said that, if closing Guantanamo were easy, George W. Bush would have made good on his own stated wishes to do so himself. Then, there's the craven opportunism of members of Congress who want to look tough on terrorism by vowing to block any effort to resettle the wrongly detained here in America. "It is a tough job, to put it mildly," says Fried. Or, as one friend simply commented after the latest round of congressional grandstanding against accepting the detainees, "Poor Dan."

 

Thankless work isn't a new experience for Fried. As the State Department's desk officer and ambassador to Poland in the mid-and late 1980s (he would become ambassador to Poland a decade later), Fried found himself in the minority arguing in favor of greater U.S. engagement with Eastern Europe's emerging democratic movements. To this day, Fried keeps a poster in his office of Gary Cooper wearing High Noon cowboy garb and walking toward a duel--but with a ballot in hand instead of a six-shooter. The image adorns a Solidarity poster in advance of Poland's June 4, 1989, democratic election, which brought an end to communist rule. Fried calls it a reminder of the perils of realism, whose proponents argued at the time against engaging with the nascent democracies in Eastern Europe. "I was a very lonely person," he says of his efforts. "He is a very effective diplomat, but he also has a very strong streak of idealism," says Fried's longtime friend Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

Fried was also something of a lonely figure within the Bush administration, where he handled European issues on the National Security Council before becoming assistant secretary of state for Europe in May 2005. Although he played the part of loyal soldier, Fried was never much of a W. man at heart. He never relished the bashing of "old Europe," and, in particular, he "was very unhappy with the impact of the Bush administration's Guantanamo and detainee policies and was strongly in favor of changing them," says a former colleague. Fried confided in this person a sense of "moral obligation" to reverse the damage to America's image abroad.

Friends and colleagues describe Fried as genial but highly driven, a diminutive long-distance runner who is such a workaholic that he is currently walking with a severe limp after a knee injury because his work schedule hasn't left time for surgery. He can also be a fierce bureaucratic infighter.

For decades, he has sparred with another former ambassador to Poland, Christopher Hill, now U.S. ambassador to Iraq--who, as a fellow State Department desk officer, was among those skeptical of Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement; for years thereafter, Fried and Hill reportedly sniped and undercut one another within the foreign policy bureaucracy. (Fried calls such reports "a myth.") The combination of idealism, experience, and bureaucratic toughness cheered human rights advocates when Obama officials revealed their plan to tap Fried for the Gitmo portfolio.

But Fried has been limping, as it were, from the start. Though word of his job was leaked in March, his appointment didn't happen until mid-May--thanks to a small-minded Senate delay of the confirmation of his successor, Phil Gordon, due to Gordon's position on the arcane but politically charged issue of the Armenian genocide. The administration was also slow to assemble a task force to pore through the files of the Guantanamo detainees and make determinations about how each should be treated, a process scheduled to finish in July but likely to drag on longer.

At the moment, Fried is largely focused on the question of what to do with the roughly 50 to 60 detainees whom the Bush and/or Obama administrations have "cleared," meaning that they won't be charged with any crimes and don't pose a major risk to U.S. security. The obvious answer would be to send them home--except that, in most of these cases, home means a place like Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, or Syria, where many of the men would be greeted with torture and possibly execution. (One Libyan detainee who returned home in 2006 after detention at a CIA "black site" was found dead in his prison cell last month after reports of torture by his jailors. Seven more Libyans remain at Guantanamo.)

Though few noticed it, the Bushies spent years doggedly hunting for new places to settle these same men. "It was like a duck--calm on the surface but paddling furiously beneath the water," says John Bellinger, a former top legal adviser to the Bush State Department. But it wasn't easy. The dilemma is exemplified by the case of 17 Chinese Muslim separatists known as Uighurs, who visited Afghanistan to train for their indigenous fight against Beijing but apparently never fought or plotted against the United States. With a return to China tantamount to a death sentence for the Uighurs, Bush officials asked roughly 100 countries to take them in. They found only two takers: the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati, to which the Uighurs said "thanks, but no thanks," according to one source, and Muslim Albania, which accepted five men in 2006 but, under severe pressure from China, will accept no more.

The progress under Obama has been similarly slight: In February, Britain accepted a one-time U.K. resident of Ethiopian descent who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002; and, earlier this month, France took in a lone Algerian arrested for plotting an anti-U.S. attack in Bosnia, a move the Associated Press described as "a gesture" to the new president. But Obama needs more than gestures. And Fried seems to be struggling to make that happen.

Thus far, Europe has seemed like the most promising destination, because of both popular support for Obama there and Fried's extensive experience on the continent. "He knows the Europeans better than anyone in government," says Matthew Waxman, a Columbia University law professor who handled detainee issues during the Bush administration. But Fried turned up few takers last month during his first swing through European capitals. He won't name specific countries, but, in early May, word leaked word that Fried visited Berlin with Attorney General Eric Holder, where the men asked Germany to accept ten Gitmo Uighurs. The German government says it is considering the request, but the prospects look dim: Bavaria's interior minister has called the idea "extremely naive," and asked why the United States can't take the Uighurs.

Further sabotaging Fried's efforts is the recent political posturing on Capitol Hill. In recent weeks, several key members from both parties in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have declared their firm opposition to allowing Guantanamo detainees into the United States, including ones who would be locked up in a supermax prison. Even the Uighurs are anathema to many members of Congress. Although press reports have suggested that the Obama administration might place a few Uighurs in northern Virginia, the state's two Democratic senators, Jim Webb and Mark Warner, have expressed strong and conditional opposition, respectively. Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, who represents the area, says he doesn't care who the Uighurs went to Afghanistan to fight. "A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist," he recently told Fox News.

And the more members of Congress fulminate over the idea of allowing detainees on U.S. soil, the more foreign countries blanch. "We want to be helpful. But I think it's going to be really tough to sell new detainees if the U.S. doesn't make any gesture on their own territory," says one European diplomat. While his country sincerely wants to help, he says, the diplomat concedes it is unlikely to accept more than a token handful of detainees, thanks in part to a wary public whose view is "Guantanamo wasn't our idea." "The exaggerated quality of much of the debate in the U.S. has obviously hurt," Fried concedes.

That's why some observers say that the more important diplomacy isn't overseas, but on Capitol Hill, where Obama finds himself at cross-purposes with ostensible allies like Reid and Webb. Any official act by Congress to prohibit the transfer of any detainees to the United States, says Malinowski, of Human Rights Watch, "would be deadly for Dan's efforts."

But Fried has other things to worry about. Beyond the hodgepodge of 60 cleared detainees of mixed nationalities, he must also find homes for many of the 97 Yemenis now in U.S. custody, few of whom are expected to be charged. The Obama team had hoped to send them back to Yemen, but a recent spike in Al Qaeda activity there, plus Yemen's outlandish reported demand of a $1-million payoff per detainee has Fried hunting elsewhere in the region--a game of Middle Eastern politics less suited to his background. "Dan's going to need to reach out far beyond Europe," says Sarah Mendelson, director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ultimately, says Bellinger, the former Bush official, it may be impossible to find homes in humane countries for the vast majority of the men at Guantanamo. As a fallback, the United States might have to repatriate some of the men to their repressive home countries after all--which would leave Fried the task of winning promises of good treatment from those governments. "Those are some of the toughest negotiations," says Bellinger, "where we say we have to have high-level, ironclad, specific assurances that [detainees] will not be mistreated, but with some kind of monitoring mechanism."

Fried doesn't pretend that the road ahead will be easy. But he clearly wishes he could have more support from members of Congress who don't seem to appreciate that the Obama administration doesn't want dangerous terrorists running loose any more than they do. "I'm not unrealistic about terrorism," says Fried, who was in the White House on September 11. "I was in the situation room when they sent our names out to an off-site, so that, in case we were hit, they wouldn't have to do that tedious work with dental records. So I am perfectly aware of the threat that terrorism poses." But keeping Guantanamo open poses its own kind of threat, he notes. And that's why the clock is ticking: eight months and counting. Poor Dan, indeed.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic. 

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