WASHINGTON — The Bush administration was so intent on keeping Guantanamo detainees off U.S. soil and away from U.S. courts that it secretly tried to negotiate deals with Latin American countries to provide "life-saving" medical procedures rather than fly ill terrorist suspects to the U.S. for treatment, a recently released State Department cable shows.
The U.S. offered to transport, guard and pay for medical procedures for any captive the Pentagon couldn't treat at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba, according to the cable, which was made public by the WikiLeaks website. One by one, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Mexico declined.
The secret effort is spelled out in a Sept. 17, 2007, cable from then assistant secretary of state Thomas Shannon to the U.S. embassies in those four countries. Shannon is now the U.S. ambassador in Brazil.
At the time, the Defense Department was holding about 330 captives at Guantanamo, not quite twice the number that are there today. They included alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and two other men whom the CIA waterboarded at its secret prison sites.
The cable, which was posted on the WikiLeaks website March 14, draws back the curtain on contingency planning at Guantanamo, but also contradicts something the prison camp's hospital staff has been telling visitors for years — that the U.S. can dispatch any specialist necessary to make sure the captives in Cuba get first-class treatment.
"Detainees receive state-of-the-art medical care at Guantanamo for routine, and many non-routine, medical problems. There are, however, limits to the care that DOD can provide at Guantanamo," Shannon said in the cable, referring to the Department of Defense.
The cable didn't give examples of those limits. But it sought partner countries to commit to a "standby arrangement" to provide "life-saving procedures" on a "humanitarian basis."
It's unclear what prompted the effort. The cable said then Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte had approved making the request at the behest of then Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, who at the time oversaw Guantanamo operations.
Negroponte said Wednesday that he had "no recollection" of the request but that it would have been unrealistic to expect the Latin American nations to agree to it, "because anything to do with Guantanamo was always so politically controversial for any of these countries." England didn't respond to a request for comment.
Earlier that year, a captive had managed to commit suicide, according to the military, inside a maximum-security lockup. Two medical emergencies also tested Guantanamo's medical services in 2006: Two captives overdosed on other prisoners' drugs they'd secretly hoarded, and then three men were found hanged in their common cellblock before dawn one Saturday.
In 2007, lawyers for Guantanamo's eldest detainee, former U.S. resident Saifullah Paracha, who Pentagon officials said was a key al Qaida insider, also challenged the military's plans to conduct a heart catheterization procedure at the base.
Paracha, now 63 and still suffering from a chronic heart condition, wanted to be taken to the U.S. or his native Pakistan for the catheterization. He refused to undergo the procedure at the base, even after the Pentagon airlifted a surgical suite and special equipment to the base to undertake the procedure.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider Paracha's request that he be brought to a U.S. hospital rather than have the experts brought to him.
"Where do they treat soldiers with heart problems?" said Zachary Katznelson, who at the time was part of Paracha's pro-bono legal team. "They get them out of Guantanamo as soon as possible. They take them to a real cardiac care unit. It's already risky enough."
The WikiLeaks cable "clearly indicates that everything we were telling the courts, everything that Saifullah was telling us, was true," Katznelson said. "Guantanamo did not have the facilities to adequately treat Saifullah on the island."
The cable also makes clear that the driving force behind seeking the arrangements was the fear that detainees would use a medical emergency to exercise their legal rights.
The cable said that emergency medical treatment on American soil presented "serious risks" to the U.S. government, or USG.
"Admitting particular detainees might lead litigants to argue that U.S. courts should order the USG to admit other, more dangerous, detainees," the cable said. "These concerns are unique to the United States and are not something that third countries face."
A State Department official said the U.S. was never able to arrange for emergency medical treatment elsewhere. But a Pentagon spokeswoman argued such a deal wasn't really necessary.
U.S. captives in Cuba "receive the highest quality medical care, the same caliber as that received by our own service members," Army Lt. Col. Tanya Bradsher said.
"Medical emergencies are handled on a case-by-case basis to identify the most effective means of providing appropriate medical treatment to the detainee at Guantanamo," she said. "This may include bringing in outside medical capabilities should the need arise."
Those outside specialists have included cardiologists and a spinal surgeon. Colonoscopies are done more or less routinely.
Today, there's an added complication: Congress forbids the Defense Department to use taxpayer money to transport Guantanamo captives to the U.S.
(Rosenberg reports for the Miami Herald.)
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