The Obama administration has begun shipping newly cleared Guantanamo Bay inmates abroad, including three sent at week's end to Saudi Arabia, to regain momentum in its effort to close the prison camp at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
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.
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.
Authorities announced Friday that three detainees — Khalid Saad Mohammed, Abdalaziz Kareem Salim Al Noofayaee and Ahmed Zaid Salim Zuhair — had been sent home to Saudi Arabia. Zuhair had had been on continual hunger strike at Guantanamo for almost four years to protest his detention.
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.
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 10 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. A deal in principle has been reached with the Pacific island nation of Palau to accept some others.
That leaves 229 detainees still at the U.S. military detention center in Cuba.
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 prison.
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.
The transfer of the Yemenis 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.