Chuck Hagel: Closing Guantanamo is an “Imperfect Process”

February 21, 2017
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

As Secretary of Defense from 2013 to 2015, Chuck Hagel personally approved the transfer of more than 40 detainees from Guantanamo Bay. For each transfer, Hagel had to sign a document certifying to Congress that the detainee would not pose a threat in the future. “It wasn’t perfect,” Hagel says of the process, “but I always took the approach that I wanted to be damn sure.”

“Every one of those detainees I signed off on, it was based on the best, absolute best information, intelligence and knowledge and certification that we could come up with,” Hagel says.

In the interview below, Hagel speaks at length about his work to shrink the Guantanamo population, why he believes “there was a political push” to close the facility, why he backed the plan, and what he sees for the future of Gitmo.

This is the transcript of an interview conducted by Arun Rath on Dec. 7, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you give just a sketch of what the situation was with Guantanamo detainees when you took office as secretary?

Well, when I became secretary of defense in February 2013, a few months prior to that, the Congress of the United States had passed a new [directive] in its National Defense Authorization Act, which put the responsibility of certifying the detainees that were being released from Guantanamo solely on the shoulders of the secretary of defense.

So what I inherited was that new law, which meant that I alone had [to] put my signature on a document that would be submitted 30 days in advance to Congress informing them that I was about ready to sign off on a detainee or detainees being released from Guantanamo [and] all the official backup documentation. Where were they going? Whose custody would they be in? How were they being secured?

Then, one of the final questions that I had to certify was, “In your opinion, have you done everything to minimize the possibility that a detainee would ever again do any harm to an American or any of our allies?” It wasn’t a 100 percent guarantee — and no one could do that — but it was pretty tight. So that’s what I inherited. …

So you specifically, secretary of defense, were on the hook there.

Yes.

Can you talk about that process? I’m assuming that’s a difficult process of determining that risk, mitigating that risk. It’s not zero risk. The phrase was “to minimize.”

Right.

What did that mean in practice in figuring that out?

Well, for me — and I think any secretary of defense would take the same approach — it wasn’t a matter of paperwork. It wasn’t a matter of covering yourself. It was a matter of realistically examining, and in good conscience, could you sign off that in fact you did believe that everything was in place, as much as you can do, to minimize the possibility of these people going back onto the battlefield or being involved in some way to inflict harm on Americans or our allies?

So yes, it wasn’t perfect, but I always took the approach that I wanted to be damn sure … and I wanted assurance from my security people that in fact they had seen physically where these people were going to be, who was going to monitor them, how often the monitoring, what kind of relationships would they have, would they have cell phones, would they have Internet, what would they be doing, how would they be provided living accommodations. All those are factors that go into the ultimate decision.

I never accepted at face value a country or prime minister coming into the White House and assuring the president of the United States, “We’ve got it; don’t worry; we’ll take him,” and that’s it. I had the responsibility to go much further than that, and to do everything I possibly could to assure that we would not see these people again in a very bad way, and I took the responsibility pretty seriously, I think as anybody would.

Because there had been recidivism from former detainees.

Yes, that’s right. …

“We’re talking about people’s lives here, and we’ve made mistakes, absolutely.”

If someone were to look at a timeline of detainees approved for release, when they’re released, one thing that would jump out would be like, say this person was cleared for release in 2009 or 2010; why did it take until 2014, ’15, ’16 to actually process them and get them out?

Yeah. Well, there’re two major answers to that. … There was a panel that did review many of these people a few years ago and said at the time, “We think it’s OK to release them.” The time lapse between that period and the time of reality of when you would actually sign off allowed for their behavior to be monitored in Guantanamo by everybody.

What we found was many — not all, but many — of those individuals who had one time been in a general kind of clearinghouse, cleared to leave, had been saying consistently pretty rough things about what they would do to Americans, like kill Americans, slaughter Americans if they ever had a chance again. You can’t dismiss that. So yes, maybe a panel in 2009 or 2011 said they should be cleared, but what about behavior and what many of the people were saying in that remaining three or four years? That has to be taken into consideration.

Also … who would take those detainees? You can’t just say arbitrarily, “OK, well, we’re going to release them.” Where will they go? Who takes responsibility for them and the whole inventory of things that I talked about? How will they be monitored? Whose responsibility? How will we get reports?

… Those were the differences, and that’s the explanation as to what happened, [as to] why weren’t those detainees who an earlier panel had cleared then just automatically separated.

And in terms of the facts about the detainees, we’ve seen with a number of them over time, the intelligence assessment, what we’re aware of — obviously a lot of it is classified — have changed. We’ve seen this in review boards where they’ve talked about cases of possibly mistaken identities in some of these cases. As you were evaluating these cases, how confident did you feel in the intelligence that you had about these individuals?

Well, intelligence isn’t perfect to start with, and we have to factor that in, and that’s, again, part of the larger process of taking the time to deal with some of these realities. Just as you said, there were misidentifications; there were wrongly identified individuals. The verification of the intelligence, as best we could get, [was], is this in fact who this person is? Is this correct? Is this intelligence in fact right? Did this guy do this or not do this? … Is it fair to really judge this individual based on this, or is there something else?

We’re talking about people’s lives here, and we’ve made mistakes, absolutely. And again, when we started I think years ago that process, setting up Guantanamo, we never thought through that, just as we never thought through, well, what happens after Saddam Hussein is gone in Iraq? Who governs? Who says who governs? By what legitimacy do they govern? Who rebuilds the country? How are you going to deal with religious, cultural, tribal differences that are the underpinnings of the turmoil and the chaos and the bloodshed in the Middle East today or whether it’s Iraq?

We’re not good at that, and Guantanamo is a good example of that. So I had the responsibility to do that. It lands on your desk, but I wanted to be fair, too, because I think some people were unfairly treated, detainees, and I wanted to make sure that we got it right as best as I could determine it.

There were various agencies that would weigh in on this, but was there dissent or conflict, say with like Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, or did you feel that they were all on the same page?

No, not everybody was. We would have meetings in the National Security Council, and that’s an appropriate forum, and we’d have the FBI, CIA, State Department, Homeland Security, elements of the Defense Department, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs was at the table, and everybody would weigh in, and that’s as it should be. Everybody should have a voice based on what their perspective is. What were our intelligence people at the FBI picking up?

There were differences, by the way. What were the CIA guys picking up? State’s perspective was often different from intelligence or DOD’s. I get that. They have a different mandate; they have a different perspective; they have different responsibilities. I get all that. DOD has a different responsibility than intelligence. We want everybody’s input, and we want everybody’s facts. We don’t want just opinions.

… Everybody had a role in this, but again, it rolls back on one individual. And I’ll give you an episode, which I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody. It’s not top secret, but in one of the meetings when I was getting considerably pushed by my colleagues in the National Security Council about releasing some that we were holding back, which eventually we did release, but we wanted to make sure, Eric Holder, attorney general — and attorney general’s always at the table — at the time said, “Well, I propose that since we’re all making recommendations, and those recommendations go forward, that we all sign the same document that Chuck has to sign as secretary of defense.” There was a very resounding silence after Eric Holder said that. … There was very little discussion, and we moved on.

… How much is the process to review them, release them, determined by the administration’s desire to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay?

Well, I think there’s no question there was a political push.

The president had made that commitment when he ran for office in 2008. I wasn’t in disagreement with that, as I’ve already said. I’ve always believed we should close it, but how you close it is always the tough part, because when you get down … to the last 20, 30, 40, these are pretty bad guys.

This has been a holdup, because there has been no acceptable plan to then deal with those really hardcore [detainees]. The easy ones are easy, so you can get rid of those. But the last group on there are not easy. They are threats, and we know that. So what do you do? There must be some plan in order to try them in a civil court or a military court, or some process to bring them to the United States. …

As you brought it down to those last 20, 30, 40, really the hardcore, brought those back to the United States and put them in maximum-security prisons and then started dealing with each of them with their case, how would they be tried, how would they be given due process or what would be the process that you could then move this forward and deal with each of them, well, that all was stopped very abruptly, and politically, by every member of a congressional delegation who had a maximum-security prison in their state or their district. Colorado, South Carolina, Kansas, not going to happen. Not going to happen. Then if that’s not going to happen, where do you put these people? It’s a tough question, and no one has ever come up with an answer to it.

“Could some of these people be hardened into verifiable, real terrorists because of the way they were treated or the people they associated with? Sure.”

You take a long view. You’re aware of American history and the different periods we’ve been through. Is it something you could imagine that having a prison facility in Guantanamo for wartime purposes is something that would make sense to do?

Sure. And I think that was the initial point. We’re at war. America was attacked on 9/11. It is the right thing to do. We’re up against an enemy we’ve never had to deal with before. There are complications that we’ve never had to deal with in any previous war before, so we are going to do some unprecedented things, and I get that. This is difficult. This is a very complex set of issues and problems. There is an argument, I think, for keeping Guantanamo, absolutely.

Now, President-elect Trump has said he’ll keep it. I don’t know what the current population is there now, but there [is] still a significant number of people down there, and that’s going to present a huge issue for the next administration. …

We talked about some of the detainees who had been cleared for release, but over time they had said things about extremism, about the United States that kind of changed the quality of the evaluation of being able to feel comfortable releasing them. We spent some time with a  former detainee that it sort of went in the other direction with him prior to his release. He was one who was classified at one point as — the term “forever prisoner” is used; I know that’s not necessarily accurate, but indefinite war detainee. But then his review changed over time, and he was cleared for release and was released in July. What should Americans make of that?

Make of what?

Of that kind of change in the evaluation of this person, their danger, their status?

… There’s always the danger, of course, because this is an imperfect process, that they could rejoin Al Qaeda or some other group. But we watch that pretty carefully. I mean, it’s not foolproof; it’s not 100 percent. … But every one of those detainees I signed off on, it was based on the best, absolute best information, intelligence and knowledge and certification that we could come up with.

And that’s all a secretary can do ultimately. So sure, is there somebody trying to game the system? Maybe. And some of them do do that? Yes. And I think on the other side, there’s an unfairness, too. If somebody’s been down there for many years, he is innocent or feels like he’s innocent, and he erupts in some sense of rage once or twice, “It’s unfair; I thought I was going to be released, and if I get out I’ll kill you all because the way you’re treating me,” it was that one-time fit, he just exploded, is it fair also to hold that against him?

It cuts on both sides of this. And we tried to be fair, as fair as we could possibly be based on the knowledge we had.

Do you think it’s possible there were individuals who went into Guantanamo not extremists and came out extremists?

Sure. Absolutely. It’s like prison. I mean, our prison system in this country is in many cases kind of an industry for building criminals. You take somebody who is sent to a prison for maybe some inconsequential crime, but certainly not murder or certainly not one of the really hardcore crimes, and what happens in many of these complexes?

… So sure, could some of these people be hardened into verifiable, real terrorists because of the way they were treated or the people they associated with? Sure. Yeah.

The individual that I was mentioning that we spent some time with in Serbia, his name is Mansoor al Dayfi. He was released to Serbia in July, and he’s not been adapting very well. We were actually out there with him for a week, and he’s gone on a hunger strike to protest that he’s not being given what he thought he was promised — education, among other things. He says that he’s not being treated fairly by the Serbian authorities. In that case, is that the responsibility of the Serbian government or of the U.S.?

Both, because we lay out very clear standards on what we would expect when Serbia or any country steps forward and said, “We will take this detainee or detainees.” Then here’s our list of requirements that we insist on, that you will commit to. Again, this goes back to the complexity of what we talked about. I mean, how do you know 100 percent that they’re going to do this? You can’t just arbitrarily say: “Well, they were cleared for release. Serbia’s going to take them, and they’ll in fact do what they say they’re going to do.”

That’s not good enough. Now, can you guarantee 100 percent that they will? No, but this is why I spent a lot of time in sending our people out to these countries to talk to the people who will be in charge, and still you don’t have 100 percent. But it’s certainly both countries’ responsibility.  It’s our responsibility as we release these detainees and say to these detainees, “These are going to be your rights,” as we say to these detainees, as we say to the host countries that are going to accept them, “We want these people to get back into society, where they are productive citizens.” … That means education; that means rehabilitation, of course. I mean, that’s clearly in our interest. It’s in the interest of the detainee. And that’s part of the commitment that a host nation has to make. Again, going back further and deeper, how are you going to do that, Serbia? Who’s going to take that responsibility? Who can we call, and who will be giving monthly reports on what this detainee is doing?

… Again, it’s imperfect. We’re dealing with governments. We’re dealing with people. We’re dealing with personalities. We’re dealing with uncontrollable dynamics. We’re dealing with bad people; we’re dealing with good people.

… Hearing you talk about the transfer and release process, it’s a vast range of responsibility, variables in motion, thinking of the number of former detainees, the number of countries they go to, the things you need to monitor and understand, both in the release process and afterward. I’m just trying to get my head around the resources that are required for that, and if you felt during your time, and what you’ve seen subsequently, if enough resources were allotted to that.

We had the resources we needed. Again, I would ask our security people to go out, military, others who understood the system, understood the process, understood what we needed. We had the resources to do that. On the issue of resources, Guantanamo is a difficult case because very little attention is given to our people who have to administer Guantanamo. The doctors, the nurses, the cooks, the support staff, the soldiers, the guards, the psychiatrists, the psychologists down there … housing the media, that’s not a pleasant assignment. And there are those who want to continue to keep it a very Spartan camp. So one of the things that we had to deal with all the time was refurbishing and renovation of just chow halls or air conditioners or barracks. I mean, the living conditions down there for our own people are terrible. We were constantly having to work on upgrading different facets of that.

So I think you have to factor in all of those pieces as you’re thinking through this. Again, I come back to the same point that this is complicated; it’s difficult; there are really no easy, good solutions. But until we are able to get a policy, a plan agreed to by a president and by a Congress to deal with the reality of what are you going to do to address [with] that last group of really hardcore people who are down there, then this will stay open indefinitely.

Again, with a new administration who takes a whole different position on Guantanamo than the outgoing administration, and with a Congress who is more in tune with the incoming administration, I mean, that status quo probably continues.

And assuming that the new administration, or a subsequent administration, is committed to keeping the prison in Guantanamo open, based on your experience, do you have any advice?

Well, my advice is, as I just said, I think you’ve got to get an answer to how do you deal with these last detainees, this really hardcore group. Or do you not? You could just indefinitely keep it open down there and continue to keep the status quo. I don’t think that’s a good answer; I don’t think it’s the right answer; I don’t think it’s a fair answer. And I think, too, in light of the opening with Cuba, I don’t think that helps our relationships there [or], also, other relationships around the world.

Now, again, I go back to the reality is that we are at war. I mean, America is still at war after 15 years. We’re still in Afghanistan. We’re still losing Americans, losing people in the Middle East. [There are] a bunch of troops back in Iraq, boots on the ground in Syria. We’re involved with the Saudis in Yemen, and we’re involved in Libya, involved in North Africa. I mean, we’ve got our people, so as long as that’s the reality, we’re going to be dealing with Guantanamo, and what you do with those that you capture and you pick up, you have responsibility for.

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