U.S. OK'd transfer of 5 terror suspects

LONDON — LONDON - U.S. officials agreed to return five terrorism suspects to Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last year as part of a secret three-way deal intended to satisfy important allies in the invasion, according to senior U.S. and British officials.

Under the arrangement, Saudi officials later released five Britons and two others who had been convicted of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, the officials said. British diplomats said they believed the men had been tortured by Saudi security police officers into confessing falsely.


Officials involved in the deliberations said the transfer of the Saudis from Guantanamo initially met with objections from officials at the Pentagon, the CIA and the Justice Department. Those officials questioned whether some detainees were too dangerous to send back and whether the United States could trust Saudi promises to keep the men imprisoned.

"To get people to take a chance on detainees who posed a threat was a new endeavor, so everyone moved cautiously," said one senior U.S. official who supported the releases. "It was the first time we were doing this, and people did not want to do it."


The Saudi prisoners were transferred to Riyadh, the capital, in May 2003. The five Britons and two others were freed three months later, in August.

The releases were public-relations coups for the Saudi and British governments, which had been facing domestic criticism for their roles in the Iraq war.

At the time, there was no indication that the releases were related. But a U.S. official with knowledge of the negotiations said, "There is a link," adding, "This was two courses that converged and had a mutual attractiveness to them."

On Friday, a spokesman for the National Security Council denied that the Saudi detainees were transferred in exchange for the British prisoners.

"There is no recollection here of any linkage between these two actions," the spokesman, Sean McCormick, said. He described the return of the Saudis as "part of the normal policy of transferring detainees from Guantanamo for prosecution or continued detention."

But U.S. officials involved in the Saudi case described it as highly unusual and said the backgrounds of those detainees raised greater concerns than those of others. Some officials also said the case showed how considerations other than security and intelligence could influence releases of prisoners.

Current and former U.S., British and Saudi officials would speak about the trade only on the condition of anonymity.

As part of the arrangement, the United States initially authorized the outright release of one of the Saudi detainees. But a senior U.S. official said the man was kept in custody by the Saudis after a terrorist attack in the kingdom raised concerns about militants' activities.


Saudi officials gave contradictory accounts of the current whereabouts of the five men, saying at first that one or two of them had been released, then denying that any had been freed. The officials also gave contradictory accounts of the suspects' legal status, first saying they had been tried and convicted of seeking to join Taliban forces in Afghanistan, but later saying prosecutions were pending.

Neither U.S. nor Saudi officials would identify the five, or describe in detail the evidence on which they had been held at Guantanamo. One U.S. official, however, said two of the former detainees had attended al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan.

Several officials involved in the negotiations defended the bargain as being in the interest of all three countries.

"We acted in our national interest to reduce the Guantanamo population at a time when we were able to conclude that we had no further need to detain these individuals," said the American with knowledge of the negotiations. "It happened to serve a beneficial diplomatic purpose both with the Saudis and the Brits. But we would never have released these people if we had a further need to detain them in the first place."

But several current and former Defense Department officials challenged that assertion, saying no Saudis had even been under consideration for release before the arrangement's being struck.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain declined to comment.