Getting A Free Pass
Anger over a deal to release a `terrorist'
After two years behind concrete walls and concertina wire at a makeshift U.S. prison in Cuba, Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane is a free man. The Danish citizen was released on February 24 from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and flown in the dark of night back to his homeland. There, the Danish police will monitor him, but, unlike five British citizens soon to be released from Gitmo, he does not face arrest on his native soil.
With the stroke of a pen, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz made official the release of the 30-year-old Dane. Yet U.S. News has learned that Abderrahmane's release came over objections from at least two U.S. government counterterrorism organizations, which argued that the man's ties to al Qaeda justified keeping him behind bars. Both the Defense Intelligence Agency's Joint Interagency Task Force for Counter-Terrorism and the Pentagon's Office of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict--which has policy oversight on the detention camp in Cuba--recommended that Abderrahmane stay at Guantanamo Bay. As one U.S. intelligence official puts it: "This guy is a terrorist. It's as simple as that."
After piecing together details about the nearly two years of deliberations over Abderrahmane within the U.S. national security community and between the top levels of the U.S. and Danish governments, however, what becomes clear is that the case was anything but simple. The Pentagon's decision to free Abderrahmane came after intense pressure by government officials in Copenhagen, who for months have been excoriated by critics in Denmark for their inability to secure the Dane's release. Angry U.S. intelligence officials now suspect that it was the Bush administration's desire to placate a key ally--one of the few Western European nations to commit troops to Iraq--that trumped objections raised by the terrorism experts. It is a case, they argue, in which the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq work at cross-purposes.
There is no evidence that Denmark threatened to pull its troops from Iraq. U.S. officials concede, however, that they are faced today with political realities that didn't exist two years ago. At least publicly, the war on terrorism continues to be executed as a military offensive rather than a law enforcement operation. Yet with growing pressure to decide the future of the roughly 650 detainees held by the United States--and to hold together a fragile coalition in Iraq--the demands of allies and the strictures of international law are of greater importance today to the Bush administration than they were after the September 11 attacks. The Abderrahmane case highlights this fact, government officials say. He was required to sign a document swearing off future acts of terrorism, and he will be monitored by Danish authorities, but the officials who opposed his release say those provisions are insufficient for a suspected member of al Qaeda.
Traveling man. After Abderrahmane was captured in December 2001 along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, there was little doubt for anyone who had read his case file that he belonged at Guantanamo Bay. "He clearly had al Qaeda ties," says Mark Jacobson, who until last fall handled detainee policy at the office of the secretary of defense. "Everyone in the U.S. government was in agreement that this guy was a threat." Though much of the U.S. dossier on the Dane remains classified, several current and former counterterrorism officials tell U.S. News that they assembled a case against a man who they believe traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 for a single purpose: waging jihad against Americans.