Power Wars Blog by Charlie Savage

Power Wars Document: Rice’s memo to Hagel on risk and transferring Guantanamo detainees

This document, whose full text has not previously been made public, is a three-page memo that Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, sent to Chuck Hagel, then the secretary of defense, in May 2014. (The existence of this memo has been previously reported.) I discuss it in Chapter 10, Section 14: “Risk Aversion.”

At the time, Hagel was dragging his feet on approving transfers of lower-level detainees to other countries. Part of the Congressional transfer restrictions required the defense secretary to tell Congress, at least 30 days before any transfer from Guantanamo, that he had personally decided that the transfer was in the national security interest of the United States and that the threat of post-release terrorism by the detainee had been substantially mitigated, including by security arrangements with the receiving country.

This law has had the effect of making the defense secretary, essentially, personally accountable if a former detainee goes on to engage in terrorism, and a series of defense secretaries – Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Hagel, and later Ashton Carter – have at times displayed reluctance to move quickly on approving proposed transfer deals.

In the spring of 2014, as Hagel was dragging his feet, national-security officials drafted this memo and Rice signed it. Saying she was speaking for President Obama, Rice instructed Hagel to interpret his statutory duties in a way that would be more favorable to winnowing down the detainee population.