With Gitmo on the path to closure, Obama approves major prisoner release

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FILE PHOTO -  The interior of an unoccupied communal cellblock is seen at Camp VI, a prison used to house detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, March 5, 2013.   REUTERS/Bob Strong/File Photo - RTX2L3FY

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JUDY WOODRUFF: When President Obama took office, there were 242 detainees being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison. He stated his priority was to close the facility in Cuba. But finding places for the inmates to go, even after they had been legally cleared, has proven difficult.

Yesterday, the Pentagon announced the latest transfer out, 15 prisoners to go to the United Arab Emirates, meaning the number left is down to 61.

William Brangham has the story.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: On his first day in office, President Obama promised to close Guantanamo. He’s called it expensive, unnecessary and a — quote — “recruitment brochure for our enemies.”

While Congress has blocked the transfer of high-risk detainees to U.S. prisons, the administration has focused on moving those who are cleared for release to other nations. But Monday’s announcement, which was the single biggest transfer for this administration, has been criticized by Republicans, who say these 15 men are dangerous and should never have been let go.

I’m joined now by Charlie Savage of The New York Times. He’s covered Gitmo and the war on terror for many years.

Charlie, help us understand, who are these 15 men that were just recently released?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: Hi. Thanks for having me on.

So these men, these 15, none of them are Emirate. Twelve of them are from Yemen and three of them are from Afghanistan. And they were approved for transfer to a stable country that could provide various security assurances some time ago in many cases either by a task force in 2009 or later by a parole-like review panel, in both cases made up of six security agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department, the State Department, the Justice Department, and so on.

These are career officials, not political appointees. And they unanimously agreed that these men no longer posed such a threat to the United States that it was necessary to keep holding them in indefinite detention without trial.

But because they came from, especially in the case of the Yemenis, countries that were not stable, in fact, chaotic and had a weak central government, they were stranded until some other country that could meet these security assurances was willing to take them in.

And in this very sizable transfer, the UAE solved that problem for the United States and brought them to its country, and is now putting them through a rehabilitation program. They have not been released on to the streets. They are still in custody, but with an eye towards eventually moving them out towards a halfway house and then life in relative freedom in that country under monitoring.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Several Republicans have pointed out that these — they argue that these 15 men are very dangerous and they point out that in a prior classification, these men were ruled as being very high-risk.

So what has changed in their status as far as the U.S. government’s view of these men?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Right.

Well, there are two things to understand about that. One is that it has become a politically potent sort of partisan fodder to say that any transfer release from Guantanamo is endangering national security as a sort of way to attack the Obama administration. And it polls well. And no matter who is released under what circumstances, this is a recurring theme. And so it has to be understood as part of this, the texture of these policy debates.

Now, as to your question specifically, what they’re referring to is, there was a group of reports or dossiers prepared by the military about everyone at Guantanamo in the first few years that they were there under the Bush administration that later became public when they were released by Private Chelsea Manning through WikiLeaks.

And they raised the threat level of the detainees and sort of described who the military at that point thought they were. And almost everyone who was there was rated either a medium or a high risk. And most of the men in this group were also rated a high risk.

That is a snapshot in time based on the military’s understanding in the year 2004, 2005, 2006. So what happens later, as years continue to pass, is that then the Obama administration came in and appointed that task force I mentioned earlier, and then later since 2013 that parole-like review board with these six agencies.

And so they come back and they take another look at these men and how have they behaved in custody. What kind of trouble have they gotten into or do they comply with the rules? What have they said over the years? What are their family members saying about them? What kind of situation would they go into?

And now things are different, in that we have this very well-developed system, some of it imposed by Congress, over the Obama administration’s objection, that requires detainees to go to a place where there are adequate security assurances of monitoring and other steps to reduce the chance of recidivism, whereas, in 2004, 2005, 2006, if someone was released, they really were just simply let go.

And so what could be a threat, what could be perceived as a threat at the time of those reports may or may not still be the case 10, 12 years later. But that is the basis of the attacks that you’re hearing in the political sphere.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, we have 61 men who are still at Guantanamo now. What’s likely to happen with those men?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: So, 20 more of them have also been recommended for transfer if security conditions can be met in the receiving countries.

And the Obama administration is clearly trying very hard to get that list down to zero or as close to zero as they can get it before President Obama leaves office. And a few more names may be added to it over time by that parole-like review board.

But there are still going to be dozens of men, currently 41, who are not recommended for transfer, either because they’re facing charges before a military commission, or more likely because, by numbers, they are simply still deemed too dangerous to release, but untriable.

They will have to be housed somewhere. President Obama’s plan to close Gitmo wasn’t to let them go, but to bring them to a different prison on domestic soil. Congress has forbidden him from doing that. And so most likely, come January 20, when the next president takes office, those men at least will still be there.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Charlie Savage of The New York Times, thank you very much.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you.

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