Obama seeks to transfer 2 Gitmo detainees


Top official on detainees to step down

William K. Lietzau, the top Pentagon official dealing with detainees, is stepping down to take a private-sector job. His departure comes at a time when President Barack Obama has sought to revitalize his administration’s effort to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Lietzau, who will leave his position next month, sent an email Thursday to his staff at the Pentagon, saying he had accepted a job as vice president and deputy general counsel for PAE, a government services company. Lietzau has played a major role in shaping detention policies across two administrations. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was still a uniformed lawyer for the Marine Corps, he served as an adviser in the creation of the first version of President George W. Bush’s system of military commissions trials. In the Obama administration, he has been the primary official shaping policies for “law of war” detention at the prison at Guantánamo Bay and Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration is transferring two Guantanamo Bay detainees to Algeria, the first movement of terrorist suspects from the prison since the president announced a renewed push to close the contentious military-run facility in Cuba.

The White House said Friday it was starting the transfers as part of President Barack Obama’s goal to close the prison, a campaign promise that has eluded him since he took office. “We are taking this step in consultation with the Congress, and in a responsible manner that protects our national security,” Obama press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said that under long-standing policy, the names of the two detainees will not be released until after the transfer. He also wouldn’t say what security assurances they had from the Algerian government as part of the arrangement. “We will not discuss the sensitive, diplomatic arrangements associated with the transfer,” Breasseale said.

A spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee said the panel received the certification, which requires the defense secretary to ensure that in transferring a detainee to another country that the individual will not engage in terrorist activities.

An administration official said the detainees were chosen because Algeria is a close U.S. ally that has successfully managed detainees in the past — none of the previous 12 to be released have returned to terrorist activities, unlike some returned to other countries. The official, speaking on a condition of anonymity without authorization to publicly discuss the process, said it has been in the works since several months before Obama announced his intention this spring to push anew for closure.

Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed off on the transfer based on the recommendation of an inter-agency team after a months-long review. “Secretary Hagel fully supports the president’s goal of closing Guantanamo Bay and this upcoming transfer brings us closer towards reaching that goal,” Little said in a statement.

That’s a high bar that had slowed the transfer process. Under Obama, the U.S. has transferred 242 prisoners out of Guantanamo. The U.S. had transferred more than 500 under President George W. Bush, according to Human Rights First. The U.S. last transferred a prisoner out of Guantanamo when Omar Khadr was sent back to his native Canada in September 2012 to serve the remainder of his sentence for a war crimes conviction by a military tribunal.

“As president, I have tried to close Gitmo,” Obama said in May 23 speech at the National Defense University. “I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries or imprisoning them here in the United States. These restrictions make no sense.”

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was quick to criticize the move because of security concerns.

“Sending them to countries where al-Qaida and its affiliates operate and continue to attack our interests is not a solution,” Chambliss said in a statement. “With the recidivism rate now at 28 percent, no detainee should be transferred to any place unless we are absolutely confident he will be effectively monitored and cannot renew terrorist ties.”

Despite Obama’s effort to shutter the prison, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress have repeatedly resisted. The House voted 247-175 Tuesday to reject an amendment that would have allowed Obama to begin closing the facility.