Obama administration's quiet transfer of Gitmo detainees suggests closing prison still a priority

Posted at 1:40 PM, Nov 24, 2014

While the nation focused on the immigration plan President Obama introduced Thursday evening, the administration was quietly working to achieve another one of the president’s goals – closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Obama used his executive powers Friday and again Saturday to quietly transfer six detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison to Georgia, Slovakia and Saudi Arabia.

The transfers suggest Obama has not given up on his plan to close the prison, despite the many congressional roadblocks he has faced since 2009.

“The president made a commitment his second day in office to close Guantanamo, and I think that he is doing his level best to live up to that commitment,” said Greg Craig, a lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and White House counsel from 2008-2010.  “And we are still seeing the fruits of those efforts. If Congress hadn’t set up so many artificial roadblocks, I think that Guantanamo would been closed today.”

The president has said that the prison is a human rights concern and is no longer needed for the U.S. military.

When Obama was elected in 2008, there were 242 detainees in the prison. Since then, his administration has transferred 102. The majority of the transfers occurred in the first two years of his presidency. In 2009, Congress began to use its budget authority to make it all but impossible to continue the transfers. Since then, the administration has resorted to piecemeal efforts, moving prisoners to countries who will take them, and Obama has continued to push the closing of Guantanamo Bay as a top priority. More than 500 detainees were released or transferred from Guantanamo during President George W. Bush’s tenure.

Last year the administration transferred 11 prisoners. Friday’s transfer of four Yemenis and one Tunisian and Saturday’s transfer brings this year’s number to 13. That’s seven in the past two weeks, according to the Department of Defense.

Obama’s push to close Guantanamo has met resistance throughout his time in the White House, but nothing compared to the reaction when the administration exchanged five Taliban prisoners for captured Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Some members of Congress reacted strongly to the news of the trade and questioned its legality because Obama had not consulted with them before doing so.

In contrast, last week’s transfers are notable for their discreetness.

J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesperson under President George W. Bush, believes the White House released the terms of Friday’s transfers around the same time as the president’s immigration plan to keep the spotlight away from the transfers.

“He had his immigration speech [on Thursday night] so it’s clear that everyone focused on that and not the fact that he just let five potential terrorists go that are perhaps likely to rejoin the fight,” he said. “He just tried to sneak it in there right after his immigration speech. Which is too clever by half and very disappointing.”

Some believe that the president is pushing to close Guantanamo Bay at all costs — despite potential security concerns.

Reports released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have found that a number of prisoners released from the detention facility have returned to terrorist activity. That alone has prompted arguments to keep prisoners indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay.

But in 2009 an interagency task force cleared 73 of the remaining 142 prisoners in Guantanamo for transfer.

Detainee population at Guantanamo, Jan. 2009-presentSource: The New York TimesLegendItemLabel: label text here50 transferred050100150200250 detainees20092010201201220132014*or dieddetainee populationtransferreddied in custody

According to Craig, Obama hopes to release those 73 prisoners by the time he leaves office. But, Craig says, in order to get the entire prison closed before the end of the Obama’s term, it’s going to take a coordinated effort – something hard to come by these days in Washington. Others believe it would take transferring prisoners to the United States, which up until now has been impossible because of constraints enacted by Congress.

“To close it, it’s got to be a partnership between the Congress and the president that has not existed since January 2009. Right now it’s getting done, it’s just going to take a lot longer,” he said.

The clock is counting down quickly and as Obama continues to tie loose ends on policy initiatives he’s promised since day one, only time will tell whether Guantanamo will be one to make the deadline.

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