There are growing concerns in some corners of the American government that six former Guantanamo Bay detainees freed by the Obama administration could pose a threat to the safety of U.S. personnel.
Those detainees were sent to Uruguay in December. And in recent months, the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo has substantially expanded its defenses against a possible threat, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
The embassy has increased the number of guards present, as well as the size of the embassy’s Marine Guard detachment, adding two more men to the handful who were there previously.
The embassy has also taken steps to heighten security for employees. All local hires have been ordered to park two to three blocks from the building so that embassy guards can conduct surveillance more easily over American cars and passengers parked nearby. Some local staff have taken that order as disregard for the safety of foreign nationals working at the embassy.
In the past month, the receptionist at the embassy’s front desk has been replaced with a guard, said a source familiar with the matter. And embassy employees have received a training session on how to react if an attacker managed to enter the embassy.
One State Department official characterized the increased security presence as more or less routine, similar to steps taken at U.S. diplomatic missions around the world following the 2012 Benghazi attacks. And the Obama administration has insisted that the former Guantanamo detainees do not represent a security threat.
But Republican lawmakers have been drawing attention to the six men, arguing that they could present a threat to U.S. interests. The lawmakers note that the six were released to Uruguay under refugee status, which means that under Uruguayan law, government officials are barred from monitoring or imposing travel restrictions on the former detainees.
“All six of them are hardened terrorists, who should...still be at Guantanamo,” said Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), who has become one of the most outspoken opponents of shutting down the Guantanamo facility. “It was a mistake to transfer them there, it was certainly a mistake to transfer them to a country that apparently did not give us adequate, if any, security guarantees.”
The tiny South American country of Uruguay, population 3.3 million, has become a flashpoint in the larger political battle over the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
President Obama has been dedicated to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo from the day he set foot in the White House. But the release of the six men has become a nagging question his administration must now fend off. For Republicans opposed to Guantanamo’s closure, the situation in Uruguay has become the vehicle for criticizing the administration’s larger policy of releasing cleared detainees to third countries.
And the questions Republicans have raised about national security complicate efforts to close Guantanamo by creating doubts about whether future transfers of detainees is wise.
The former detainees now in Uruguay were previously accused of having been fighters with ties to terrorist groups. A Bush administration assessment, concluded in 2008 and made public by WikiLeaks, said five of them posed a “high risk” because they were “likely to pose a threat to the U.S., its interests and allies.” The sixth posed a “medium risk.”
After Obama was elected, he ordered a review of every detainee at Guantanamo. The six men were approved for transfer upon the unanimous approval of the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the director of national intelligence, and the State Department.
This Obama administration review, which involved a larger number of federal agencies and was arguably more thorough, found in essence that the intelligence used to draw conclusions for the Bush-era assessments was not credible.
“It was the unanimous decision of six departments and agencies...that these individuals should be transferred from Guantanamo, and could be transferred in a manner that protects our national security and is consistent with our humane treatment obligations,” said Ian Moss, the spokesman for the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure at the State Department.
Beyond that, the Obama administration is hampered by how little it is able or willing to say about the men. Many of the surrounding details about these six former detainees are classified at the highest levels.
In a private meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, closed to the public to allow for the discussion of sensititve national security matters, the discussion turned to the future of Guantanamo and the recidivism rate of former detainees.
One senator cited the detainees released to Uruguay as a prime example of why lawmakers should be concerned about terrorists re-engaging in hostilities and trying to plot attacks after their release, according to multiple congressional sources.
But the discussion of Gitmo detainees released to Uruguay was swiftly shut down. Even in a session closed to the public, the cases involved information that was so highly classified, some aides in the room had not been cleared to hear about it.
So far, there is no public indication that the men have done anything nefarious since their release in December 2014.
Several of the detainees camped out for several weeks this spring in front of the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo to demand more compensation from the Uruguayan government. And former detainee Jihad Ahmed Mujstafa Diyab traveled to neighboring Argentina in February to urge that country to take in Gitmo detainees, rankling Republicans.
In an April letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce raised concerns about the former detainees’ threat to the U.S. Embassy.
After the detainees arrived in Uruguay, they were given housing six blocks away from the embassy.
“I remain concerned that this close proximity to the Embassy, combined with the apparent lack of host country mitigation measures, poses a potential risk to the safety and security of our Embassy and its employees, including local hires,” Royce wrote.
“The February 2015 travel of one of the individuals to Argentina underscores the ease of travel afforded the former detainees now that they are characterized as refugees in Uruguay,” Royce added. “This freedom of widespread movement would seem to make effective mitigation, if attempted, near impossible.”
Moss, the State Department spokesman, said he was unable to provide The Daily Beast with additional information about steps taken to mitigate potential security risks.
“I cannot discuss the specific assurances we receive from foreign governments,” said Moss, who stressed that transfers only occur after “detailed, specific conversations” with the receiving country about the security threat a detainee could pose and the measures the country will take to mitigate that threat.
Lawmakers have been lobbying the Obama administration publicly and privately to release more details about the release of the detainees.
“Surely we didn’t release six hardened Guantanamo detainees to Uruguay without a memorandum of understanding—without definite and specific criteria under which the Uruguayan government was going to monitor these detainees,” Cotton said.
Before Royce’s April letter, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) wrote to Kerry in January, asking for the government to release a written agreement between the U.S. government and the Uruguayan government indicating “what security measures...have been put into place to prevent their engaging in terrorism related activities.”
And last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker sent another letter to Kerry—this time, a private one.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Corker likened the Uruguay transfers to the former Taliban fighters sent to Qatar in exchange for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom.
“Our office is conducting its proper oversight role to ensure the administration provides—as it did in the case of Qatar—documentation describing any commitments, understandings or agreements between the United States and other countries relating to the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees,” Corker said.
The displeasure at the release of the six former detainees to Uruguay is not confined to the United States. Longtime Uruguayan lawmaker Jaime Trobo, who belongs to a center-right opposition party, said coordination between the Uruguayan and American governments occurred through Uruguay’s president, without official approval from the country’s congress.
“All the initial process and the procedure related to the arrival of the ex-prisoners from Guantanamo to Uruguay has lacked transparency,” Trobo told The Daily Beast. “The information provided does not fulfill the minimum requirement of substance for such a delicate situation.”
Trobo also questioned U.S. officials’ assurances that the ex-detainees pose no national security threats.
“The United States has said publicly that these people are not a threat,” Trobo said. “If so, why aren’t they able to enter the U.S.? That’s what we ask ourselves here [in Uruguay].”
Corker, Cotton, and their staffs all declined to comment on or corroborate details regarding embassy force protection measures and intelligence methods.
—Alexa Corse contributed to this report.