The Obama administration is beginning to follow up on its promise to renew its efforts to close the detainee prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with plans to transfer two detainees held at the facility to Algeria, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday.
Under new rules for releasing detainees that President Obama announced during a major foreign policy speech in May, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel must certify he believes the detainees do not pose a threat to the U.S. and will not return to the battlefield to plot attacks against the U.S.
In announcing plans to repatriate two detainees to Algeria, Carney said the administration has consulted with Congress and is acting in a "responsible manner that protects our national security," he said.
"As the president has said, the United States remains determined to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay," Carney said, and the return of the detainees to their home country of Algeria is "in support of those efforts."
The two detainee transfers are the first this year and signify a renewed commitment by the Obama administration to shutter the Guantanamo Bay prison.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., is the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee and ardently opposes shutting down Guantanamo Bay. Minutes after Obama announced his intent to release the two Algerian detainees, Chambliss released a statement condemning the move.
“People across America are very concerned that this administration still has no plan for these hard-core terrorists if efforts to close Guantanamo are successful,” he said. “Sending them to countries where al Qaeda and its affiliates operate and continue to attack our interests is not a solution.”
Chambliss cited a recidivism rate of 28 percent, an estimate by U.S. intelligence agencies that advocates of closing the prison often dispute, as reason for exercising extreme caution in transferring detainees “to any place unless we are absolutely confident he will be effectively monitored and cannot renew terrorist ties.”
Pointing to a former Guantanamo detainee who he said was involved in the attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, he said we “simply cannot afford to take the risk with other detainees just to satisfy a political promise.”
“To do so would be nothing short of an invitation for al Qaeda to continue to attack us,” he added.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., also voiced his opposition to Obama's “insistence” to close the prison.
“Gitmo is necessary, and today's action is the wrong signal to send,” he said.
There are 166 detainees who remain at Guantanamo Bay, the majority of whom are Yemeni. The president was forced to stop transfers to Yemen in early 2010 after it was discovered that the so-called underwear bomber who botched the Christmas Day bombing of a commercial flight headed to Detroit had ties to Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That al Qaeda affiliate claimed to have helped him plan the attack and supplied him with the underwear bomb.
In early 2010, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Intelligence panel, forced Obama's hand by calling for a halt to detainee transfers to Yemen, but this year she has said she believes the transfers to that country can resume.
Feinstein applauded the Obama administration's decision to repatriate the two Algerian detainees, calling it an important step toward closing the prison “once and for all” and noting the two Algerian detainees were cleared for transfer a year ago.
She also argued that it's too costly to keep the detainees at “an isolated base in Cuba,” citing estimates that keeping Guantanamo Bay open costs $454 million annually and $2.7 million per detainee.
“I renew my call to send the other 84 detainees cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo,” she said. “These transfers have been impeded by congressional action, and I strongly support the provisions in this year’s defense authorization bill, as approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee, that will provide more flexibility to the commander-in-chief.”
In 2012, the U.S. allowed two detainees to leave Guantanamo Bay. They were Uyghurs — Chinese Muslims — who were released to El Salvador. Before Obama placed a ban on detainee transfers to Yemen, the administration in early 2010 returned another two Algerians to their home country.
"We continue to call on Congress to join us in supporting these efforts by lifting the current restrictions that significantly limit our ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo, even those who have been approved for transfer," Carney added.
Obama is set to host Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi in Washington next week for talks that could determine the fate of the dozens of Yemenis who remain at Guantanamo Bay.