July 17, 2009 -- A Pentagon official Thursday largely refused to answer lawmakers' questions about why members of Congress are prohibited from meeting with Guantanamo detainees, even as intelligence officials from China and elsewhere were allegedly allowed to visit Guantanamo and interrogate prisoners held there.
Allan Liotta, director of the Pentagon's Office of Detainee Policy, testified before a concerned and sometimes fiery House Foreign Affairs subcommittee Thursday, with the difficult task of explaining why the Pentagon allegedly allowed Chinese officials to interrogate several ethnic Chinese Uighur detainees at Guantanamo over a week-long visit in 2002, while it has barred any of the 220 U.S. senators and congressmen who have visited the island facility from meeting any of the detainees held there.
All of the Uighur detainees have since been determined not to be enemy combatants and some have been released from U.S. custody. Five of the men now live in Albania and four are in Bermuda. The island nation of Palau offered earlier this year to accept the remaining 13. The United States declined a request from China to repatriate the Uighurs, out of concern they would be tortured or executed.
The Pentagon insists on keeping lawmakers away from Guantanamo detainees for fear the detainees may be harmed, Liotta explained. "Without question, the single greatest reason to limit access to detainees is to provide for their personal safety, as well as that of the guards and other military personnel," he said.
The Pentagon policy is also built on a respect for the Geneva Conventions, Liotta testified, which requires the United States to shield detainees from "public curiosity." As well, he said, the prohibition was in place to ensure a U.S. lawmaker does not get drawn in to ongoing litigation involving the detainees.
Those answers did not sit well with the lawmakers present. "You allowed intelligence agents of a foreign country to interrogate [Uighur detainees], but you are concerned about their safety and that's why you don't allow United States members of Congress [to visit]?" pressed Rep. Jim Moran, D-VA, in a series of rhetorical questions. "You are concerned about 'public curiosity' -- apparently you're implying we'd be seeing them out of some public curiosity?"
Lawmaker Threatens Funding Cut over Gitmo
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-CA, was visibly upset by the Obama administration's apparent decision to continue the Bush administration's policy of barring detainee visits by lawmakers. "I am being denied -- all of us are being denied the same access that was denied during the last administration," he said. "George Bush, 'what a horrible man, a horrible president!' [But] these very same restrictions on us and are being reaffirmed in today's testimony by this administration."
During questioning Liotta referred most lawmakers' at-times incredulous queries to the Justice Department, or claimed the answer they sought was a national secret and could not be shared in a public hearing.
Those demurrals ignited Moran. "My frustration continues to mount," he said. "In order not to answer a question, you can suggest it be provided in classified form. That's not acceptable. There is no classification of that answer. This is a manipulative, evasive tactic you are employing."
Moran suggested Liotta could be held in contempt of Congress, threatened to cut funding for the Office of Detainee Policy unless he got satisfactory answers, and said he thought Liotta ought to be fired.
"To take up two hours of our time and not directly answer any of the relevant questions – is an absolute insult to the United States Congress," Moran declared.
"I understand that this is a difficult moment for you," panel chairman Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-MA, told Liotta after Moran finished. "I have no doubt that you have received instructions. . . You find yourself in a very awkward situation."
The last Uighurs in Guantanamo were released last month to Bermuda and Palau, after being held at the island prison for over five years. Former senior State Department official Randall G. Shriver, who worked on the issue until 2005, recently called the men's detention "nothing short of tragic."
In addition to allegedly allowing Chinese intelligence personnel to interrogate the Uighur prisoners, U.S. officials allegedly shared with the Chinese private data on the identity of the Uighur detainees' family members; helped "soften up" the detainees by keeping them awake and other measures; and allegedly helped restrain the detainees when asked to do so.
Through Lawyer, Uighur Ex-Detainee Testifies
"I had never thought that American soldiers would work with Chinese and treat us like this," wrote Abu Bakker Qassim, a Uighur ex-detainee who provided testimony, through his lawyer, to the committee. Qassim, who applied for political asylum in the United States, now lives in Albania.
"After the Chinese had left, during an interrogation, I asked [U.S.] interrogators why they released all of out materials to the Chinese even though they promised to keep our information confidential; the Chinese could now randomly oppress our family members," Qassim wrote. "They apologized by saying that someone in Washington gave our materials to the Chinese."
The State Department has found China has suppressed Uighurs' religious freedoms, and has accused the Chinese government of persecuting, even executing, those who advocate Uighur independence. Clashes this week in western China involving Uighurs have claimed nearly 200 lives, according to the Chinese government, although Uighurs say their fatalities are higher than counted by the state.
This story has been revised.