WASHINGTON (AP) - 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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.