WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is working on more transfers out of the Guantanamo Bay detention center in the wake of last week’s release of five Taliban fighters but said Wednesday it doesn’t have a timeline for progress.
One national security official said Wednesday that the administration is making headway on some “promising opportunities,” but that the process may take some time.
“While we continue to work toward closure, there are no imminent transfer announcements in the works,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.
Last week’s transfer of Guantanamo detainees in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has kicked up a storm on Capitol Hill among lawmakers who think they should have known more details in the run-up to the transfer.
Some are suspicious that the move signals an opening of the doors on the controversial prison, which holds 149 people, including the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
President Barack Obama, who has sought unsuccessfully to shut the U.S. military prison in Cuba since he took office, hinted strongly last week that he still intends to move more detainees out as the Pentagon winds down its war in Afghanistan.
“By definition, if we in fact are ending a war, then there’s going to be a process in which some of those individuals are going to be released,” he said on NBC News.
After briefings with administration officials this week, some Republican lawmakers said they believe the White House intends to release more prisoners without seeking congressional consent, as they did to gain Bergdahl’s release from the Taliban.
“There’s some concern that this is a lead-up to letting them all go,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she sharply disagrees with the administration’s contention that ending the war in Afghanistan would necessitate transferring all remaining detainees.
“Even with the wind-down of the war in Afghanistan, unless the authorization for use of military force is rescinded, we still have authority under that to hold them under law of war detention if we believe they still present a danger,” she said.
The release of the so-called Taliban 5 has given lawmakers most committed to keeping Guantanamo open, such as Ayotte, new ammunition in their fight.
A new defense authorization bill that passed the House last month maintains prohibitions on transferring most detainees from the detention facility. But the Senate Armed Services Committee has included a provision that would allow some to be transferred to U.S. soil for detention or trial, under strict circumstances.
Ayotte, a committee member who opposed that provision, said she had already intended to try and strip that language from the bill when the full Senate takes up the measure. But now she intends to go further. She hopes to restore an even higher standard for national security waivers the administration must provide before transferring high-risk detainees. Ayotte sponsored an amendment that was adopted in committee to suspend transfers to Yemen.
Hayden said the White House is “making progress on a number of additional promising opportunities” to transfer more detainees and is reviewing Yemeni detainees “on a case-by-case basis.”
“While we do not generally discuss transfers before they take place, we are fully committed to implementing the president’s direction that we transfer detainees to the greatest extent possible, consistent with national security and our humane treatment policy, as we work toward closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay,” she said.
Hayden said 17 inmates have been moved out of Cuba in the last 13 months, including the five former Taliban officials transferred to Qatar in the swap for Bergdahl, who had been held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years.
The future of America’s most notorious prison camp and its 149 remaining inmates has been in doubt since the White House announced the exchange on May 31.