Chinese Uighurs and Obama's Gitmo Problem

As part of their efforts to shut down the Guantánamo Bay detention center, Obama Administration officials were poised in late April to make a bold, stealthy move: they instructed the U.S. Marshals Service to prepare an aircraft and a Special Ops group to fly two Chinese Uighurs, and up to five more on subsequent flights, from Gitmo to northern Virginia for resettlement. In a conference call overseen by the National Security Council, Justice and Pentagon officials had been warned that any public statements about Gitmo transfers would inflame congressional Republicans, according to a law-enforcement official who asked not to be named discussing internal deliberations. Then on May 1, -Virginia GOP Rep. Frank Wolf got tipped off. Furious, he fired off a public letter to President Obama, charging that the release of the Uighurs—Muslim separatists opposed to the Chinese government—could "directly threaten the security of the American people." White House officials were not happy. One called Wolf's chief of staff and accused his boss of playing politics. "Now we know how you're going to play this," Jim Papa, chief Obama liaison to the House, said during the conversation, according to Wolf staffer Dan Scandling. (Papa did not comment; a White House official said there were multiple briefings for Wolf's office.) The flight never took off.

The blowup illustrates the challenge Obama faces to meet his goal of shuttering Gitmo—a problem that grew last week when the Senate voted 90-6 to strip money for the closure from a funding bill. "This may be harder than health care," said one senior official, who also requested anonymity. A federal court has ordered the release of Gitmo's 17 remaining Uighurs. But they can't be returned to China because they would likely be tortured or executed. Sending them to northern Virginia seemed to make sense: a -Uighur community is located there, and Wolf has been a critic of China's human-rights record and has championed the Uighur cause. But Wolf told NEWSWEEK he fears the detainees might attack Chinese diplomats in D.C. "Let them go to some other country," he said.

So far, there are no takers. Since Albania accepted five in 2006, the Pentagon has been rebuffed repeatedly by other countries. Last week the State Department asked Germany to resettle nine Uighurs. But its government is expected to stall until after a September election, if not longer, according to a European diplomat who asked not to be identified. The Germans, the official said, "want the U.S. to take Gitmo detainees first." That could be a long time coming.