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 United States for treatment, a recently released State Department cable shows.
The United States 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 Thomas Shannon, who was then assistant secretary of state to the U.S. embassies in those four countries.
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 Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
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 United States 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 nonroutine, 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.
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."
In 2007, lawyers for Guantanamo's eldest detainee, former U.S. resident Saifullah Paracha, who Pentagon officials said was a key al-Qaida insider, 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 United States 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.