Gitmo Closure Boost Makes Waves in Bagram
(CN) - With a special envoy appointed to close its prison at Guantanamo Bay, the United States has also pledged to review the indefinite detentions of "third country nationals" in Afghanistan.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had announced Tuesday the appointment of a special envoy tasked with closing the Naval Base prison in Cuba. That appointee, Paul Lewis, previously oversaw Guantanamo-related issues as minority general counsel of the House Armed Services Committee.
The announcement came one day after more than a dozen nonprofit groups urged President Barack Obama in a letter to follow through on a commitment he made during a speech in April to close Guantanamo.
Obama had said of Guantanamo at the time: "It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens international cooperation with our allies. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed."
There were 166 detainees then, only two of whom have since been transferred, the nonprofits noted.
Lewis, tapped to speed up that process, starts his job on Nov. 1.
"Of the detainees who remain, 84 were cleared for transfer by national security officials more than four years ago," the nonprofits said in their letter.
Highlighting the cost and inefficiency that caught Obama's eye, the Miami Herald reported in July that the Pentagon spends "a whopping $2.7 million" per Guantanamo prisoner.
That tally did not include costs for "Camp 7," described in the article as a "secret lock-up for ex-CIA prisoners."
The author of that piece, Carol Rosenberg, is widely considered the journalistic authority on all things Guantanamo. She sued the Department of Defense to reveal the costs for this camp on Wednesday.
Lewis, the recently appointed envoy to Guantanamo, is also taked with reviewing "third country nationals currently held by the United States in Afghanistan."
Tina Foster, the executive director the International Justice Network, noted in an email that the Department of Defense attorneys signaled a commitment to "get out of the detention business in Afghanistan."
She clarified over the phone that she was quoting representations made by Pentagon lawyers that detention there would wind down with U.S. operations, but that the government has never cemented such statements into a firm commitment of policy.
"Currently, there are dozens of men at Bagram eligible for release or repatriation to their home countries - some of whom have been cleared for transfer by military personnel in Afghanistan several years ago and are simply awaiting final approval from the Department of Defense in Washington to return to their home countries," Foster, who represents many of those detainees, had said in the email.
Last public estimates showed between 60 and 70 non-Afghan detainees at Bagram, hailing largely from Pakistan, Yemen and Tunisia, Foster added over the phone.
In some cases, it has been "frustrating to the military on the ground" to see the continued imprisonment of detainees cleared for release, even in cases when their host governments promise to strip them of their passports and monitor them, Foster added.
Blaming "political inertia" for the stalemate, she noted that Congress did not impose restrictions on Bagram transfers as they did in Guantanamo.
In her statement, Foster wrote that she was "hopeful" that Lewis would take "meaningful action" toward that end.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon also announced the resumption of a long-stagnant "Periodic Review Boards," or PRBs, to determine the transfer or prosecution potential of detainees.
Obama had mandated the process by executive order in March 2011, but attorneys for 71 detainees were notified only this past July to prepare for resumption of the process.
Pentagon officials nevertheless refused to reveal when the panels would meet and whether news outlets can attend, the Miami Herald reported at the time.
The Defense Department announced on Wednesday that the PRBs are now "underway."
Though the "highly classified" hearings are not open to the public, the DoD promised the eventual creation of a website to share unclassified information related to them.
Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the hearings have "no set timeline."
"The PRBs are complete once they are complete," Breasseale said.
Human Rights First's Dixon Osburn said he "welcomed" the Pentagon's announcement.
"As combat operations in Afghanistan draw to a close in 2014, the United States has a responsibility to determine how it will handle the cases of remaining Guantanamo detainees," Osburn said in a statement. "Today's implementation of the Periodic Review Boards is a significant step toward accomplishing the administration's goal of shuttering the detention facility."