If Detainee Population Shrinks Further, Guantanamo May Have To Close President Obama wants to close the Guantanamo Bay prison but Congress disagrees. There are 91 detainees left, and the Pentagon will soon transfer more. Accelerated transfers may help Obama's cause.

If Detainee Population Shrinks Further, Guantanamo May Have To Close

If Detainee Population Shrinks Further, Guantanamo May Have To Close

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President Obama wants to close the Guantanamo Bay prison but Congress disagrees. There are 91 detainees left, and the Pentagon will soon transfer more. Accelerated transfers may help Obama's cause.


And now we have an update on President Obama's drive to close the prison-for-terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There continues to be a fair amount of opposition to closing Guantanamo. If it were easy, it would've happened years ago as I wanted, as I have been working to try to get done.

INSKEEP: Right now you can think of the president as working to close the prison one cell at a time. In the next few weeks, the Pentagon plans to transfer out about a dozen detainees. Congress will not agree to shut the facility, so the president is working to reduce the inmate population so much that leaving the prison open makes no sense. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: One by one, most of Guantanamo's detainees, some after 14 years of confinement, have been transferred to their home countries or to other nations willing to take them. That effort is now headed at the U.S. State Department by President Obama's special envoy Lee Wolosky.


LEE WOLOSKY: When the president took office there were 242 detainees in Guantanamo. At its height, under President Bush, Guantanamo housed almost 800 detainees. We're now down to 91.

WELNA: Closing Guantanamo's prison is official Pentagon policy as well. Paul Lewis is the special envoy there. At a panel discussion, Lewis said shrinking the detainee population even further is key to bringing those who remain to the U.S.


PAUL LEWIS: The president said smallest number possible. And I think if we get to the point where we have 30 detainees, we can go to the Congress, if we haven't already addressed the issue with them, and say surely, when the country detained hundreds of thousands of people during World War II safely, cannot we now detain 30 or 35 people?

WELNA: The response from top Republicans has been no. Mitch McConnell is the Senate majority leader.


MITCH MCCONNELL: Closing Guantanamo and transferring terrorists to the United States didn't make sense in 2008, and it makes even less sense today.

WELNA: And GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump promised he'd grow Guantanamo's prisoner ranks.


DONALD TRUMP: I watched President Obama talking about Gitmo - right? - Guantanamo Bay, which by the way - which by the way, we are keeping open, which we are keeping open.


TRUMP: And we're going to load it up with some bad dudes. Believe me, we're going to load it up.

WELNA: In the meantime, the president's envoys are racing to move 37 captives whose detention is deemed no longer necessary to other countries. Again, Paul Lewis.


LEWIS: We're going to be able to transfer them in the next couple months. We've never given a timetable before, but we're both confident that we have negotiations that are in place or that we're working on.

WELNA: Others are less confident.


CLIFF SLOAN: We are falling short. I think it's a failure.

WELNA: Cliff Sloan was the State Department's special envoy to close Guantanamo until last year. To transfer those detainees out of Guantanamo, he says, speed is of the essence.


SLOAN: We saw in January a lot of transfers, and that was very welcome. I think it was 17. And you know how many transfers we saw in February? Zero. And we are not at a point where we can afford to have any months without a significant number of transfers.

WELNA: There may soon be even more detainees eligible for transfer. A parole-board-type panel representing six federal agencies, known as the Periodic Review Board, has lately speeded up hearings which had been moving at a sleepy pace. And most of the detainees who've gone before it have been deemed eligible for release. That worries New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte.


KELLY AYOTTE: They are continuing to release dangerous terrorists out in the world. And it's not a transfer, folks. It's a release.

WELNA: Ayotte points to intelligence reports indicating close to 30 percent of transfer detainees are either confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight. Special envoy Wolosky says that recidivism occurred mainly among the 500 or so detainees released during the Bush administration.


WOLOSKY: It is merely political opportunism now to turn around and say, look, now that a Democrat is president, we don't like the policy anymore.

WELNA: But the House Armed Services Committee's Republican chairman, Mac Thornberry, says he opposes more transfers precisely because so many low-risk prisoners have already left.


MAC THORNBERRY: We're down to the hard core. So releasing any of these people to other countries, bringing any of these people back into the United States I think would present real problems.

WELNA: Pentagon special envoy Lewis acknowledges when it comes to transfers, there are no certainties.


LEWIS: There is not a situation where we're dealing with no risk. If we transfer detainees, there is going to be risk. But if we keep them at Gitmo, there's going to be risk.

WELNA: Risk that the prison inspires others to join terrorist groups, a risk that can be eliminated, Lewis says, only by closing it. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

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