Obama won't rule out freeing Gitmo detainees

June 12, 2009 4:43:14 PM PDT
Despite fierce opposition in Congress, the White House insisted Friday it has not ruled out releasing Guantanamo Bay detainees in the United States. But with narrowing options, the administration has begun shipping newly cleared inmates abroad to regain momentum in its effort to close the Cuba-based prison camp. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration has not abandoned the possibility of releasing detainees in the U.S., but he added that national security considerations would govern any moves.

"We're not going to make any decisions about transfer or release that threatens the security of the country," Gibbs said at the end of a week in which nine detainees were transferred under high security to foreign nations, and one to the United States to face trial.

Gibbs said the release of those detainees showed "marked progress" and other decisions were being made on a case-by-case basis. President Barack Obama said last month that the cases of 50 detainees had been reviewed - and the administration said 48 of them were waiting for release to foreign nations.

But the prospects for any transfers of Guantanamo inmates to the mainland U.S. have dimmed in recent weeks as Congress acted to block funding to pay for the moves. And foreign countries have been hesitant to take even cleared detainees who were deemed not to pose security threats.

Authorities announced late Friday that three detainees had been sent home to Saudi Arabia.

The Justice Department said the trio will be subject to judicial review in Saudi Arabia before they participate in a "rehabilitation" program administered by the Saudi government.

With the latest transfer, the U.S. has removed 10 detainees from Guantanamo in the past week, sending four to Bermuida, one to Chad, one to Iraq, and one to face trial in New York City. That leaves 229 detainees still at the U.S. military detention center in Cuba.

The three men sent to Saudi Arabia are Khalid Saad Mohammed, Abdalaziz Kareem Salim Al Noofayaee, and Ahmed Zaid Salim Zuhair.

U.S. officials said they were close to a deal with Saudi Arabia and Yemen under which Saudi Arabia would take about 100 Yemeni detainees and place them in Saudi-run terrorist rehabilitation centers.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private diplomatic contacts, would not say how many Yemenis might be transferred or when the agreement might be finalized.

Negotiations on the fate of the Yemeni inmates have been under way for months, stalled over a Saudi demand that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh publicly endorse the proposal, the officials said. Saleh had refused to do so fearing a backlash among his people, the officials said, and, as of late last month, he preferred for Yemen to set up its own centers.

Obama has pledged to close Guantanamo by early next year, and U.S. officials have been searching for places to resettle detainees, lobbying hard with foreign governments. The pace of those efforts picked up last month after Congress said it would prevent detainees, even those cleared of wrongdoing, from being brought to the U.S.

This week alone, the administration transferred ten detainees out of Guantanamo. Two were sent to Chad and Iraq, one was brought to New York to stand trial in civilian court, four were sent to Bermuda, and three to Saudi Arabia. And a deal in principle has been reached with the Pacific island nation of Palau to accept some others.

Besides detainees who might be freed, tried or turned over to foreign governments, there are still others - highly dangerous - who the administration says can be neither freed nor tried. These prisoners - "people who in effect remain at war with the United States," Obama has said - include detainees who may have received extensive al-Qaida training, commanded Taliban troops or sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

With clear movement this week on settling 17 Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, from Guantanamo, the Yemeni detainees are the largest national bloc at the Cuba-based prison.

Their transfer would put a significant dent in the facility's population but still not set the stage for closing.

Numerous countries have balked at accepting detainees unless some are also resettled in the United States.

Despite Gibbs' comments, a key House panel approved legislation Friday that would deny immigration benefits to any Guantanamo detainees who might be released in the U.S. after being brought here for trial.

The bill, to be voted on soon by Congress, would be in effect until the end of the budget year at the end of September. Lawmakers could then extend the ban.

Adoption of the legislation would deal another blow to the administration, which was taken aback by the vehemence of the resistance to a tentative earlier plan to resettle some of the Uighurs in Virginia.

The Uighurs were determined not to be enemy combatants by the Pentagon and ordered released by a federal judge. But few nations have been willing to accept them, out of fear of angering China's government, which accuses them of being terrorists and demands they be returned to China.

Intense opposition from both Republicans and Democrats forced the Obama administration to shelve the resettlement plan after a particularly embarrassing setback for Obama in which the Democratic-led Congress stripped funding to close Guantanamo.

Lawmakers of both parties denounced even the possibility of trials in the U.S. of detainees. And Republicans made clear they would use the issue as a linchpin in their opposition to other administration projects.

Determined to regain the upper hand, U.S. officials have been crisscrossing the globe in recent weeks to cajole other governments to take freed detainees.

"The White House came to the realization that it's just too hard, that there were too many obstacles to this and is looking at other options," said one senior official.

Earlier this week, after a visit from Obama's special envoy for closing Guantanamo, Daniel Fried, the president of Palau, a remote island east of the Philippines, said his country was willing to accept some or all of the Uighurs.

Then on Thursday, four Uighurs were transferred from Guantanamo to the British territory of Bermuda. The move angered British officials, who have responsibility for the island's foreign, defense and security affairs, but were not informed until shortly before it happened.

Hours later, the administration's interest in completing those transfers was evident in the presence of Fried and White House counsel Greg Craig aboard a flight that carried four newly released Uighurs and their lawyers to Bermuda. White House officials said the officials were on the flight to ensure there were no last-minute hitches.

Officials had long believed that the Uighurs would be the easiest - and perhaps the only - Guantanamo detainees who could be released in the United States.

Now that Bermuda and Palau have stepped forward, the administration has for the time being given up on bringing any Uighurs to American soil.

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