RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Pentagon, earlier this week, announced that they have transferred 10 detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Oman. Forty-five prisoners remain in the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo. NPR's Arun Rath has been reporting this story as part of an upcoming project with the PBS series "Frontline."
Today, on President Obama's last full day in office, Arun looks at Obama's effort and failure to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the challenges ahead for President-elect Donald Trump.
ARUN RATH, BYLINE: On his third day in office in 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order 13492. It ordered the detention facilities at Guantanamo be closed, quote, "as soon as practicable and no later than one year from the date of this order." To that end, it also ordered a review of the 240 detainees then held in Guantanamo. Matt Olsen was the head of President Obama's Guantanamo Review Task Force, which compiled and evaluated all the available information on the detainees. The files had never been brought together in one place.
MATT OLSEN: We concluded that 126 detainees would be approved for transfer. And that means transferred to another country with security measures.
RATH: But the yearlong review process also revealed how complicated the job of closing Guantanamo would be. It still wasn't clear where to put those who could not be released - those would be tried as war criminals, those considered too dangerous to release but too difficult to prosecute. In 2011, Congress began to place restrictions on Guantanamo transfers, effectively preventing the president from transferring the population in Guantanamo to a U.S. facility.
Even the detainees cleared for release were stuck in Guantanamo if, for whatever reason, they couldn't return home. There were dozens of Yemenis, for instance, who had been cleared but could not return to a country descending into civil war. It was up to the State Department to find a country willing to take them in. The U.S. would not.
CLIFF SLOAN: Rather than being the worst of the worst, there are some who have the worst luck because they were from Yemen, because they were from a country that they cannot go back to.
RATH: Cliff Sloan served as special envoy for Guantanamo closure in 2013 and '14. He was responsible for convincing third countries to accept detainees.
SLOAN: It's a very interesting process, talking to foreign governments about their willingness to accept detainees for resettlement. The conversations are difficult. There are many things to work out.
RATH: The State Department won't discuss details of the deals between the U.S. and foreign governments. But the detainees have ended up all over the world, from Kazakhstan to Uruguay. Ambassador Lee Wolosky, the current special envoy for Guantanamo closure, says that one of the things that makes it difficult to convince foreign governments to accept detainees is that old but sticky label, worst of the worst.
LEE WOLOSKY: The fact that they have been labelled in a political discourse as the worse of the worst - which some of them are but some of them aren't. And the ones we're moving out are not, but they're lumped in there - that certainly makes the task of doing what we do, which is looking at each case and convincing our foreign partners to look at the facts in each case, more difficult because of the labeling.
RATH: The dozens of detainees left in Guantanamo include seven men being tried in military commissions, like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, as well as others whose actual value and danger are disputed. Even if Mr. Obama had more time, it's unlikely they'd be anywhere else. Chuck Hagel was President Obama's secretary of defense from 2013 to 2015.
CHUCK HAGEL: Until we're able to get a policy, a plan, agreed to by a president and by a Congress to deal with the reality of - what are you going to do to address that last group of really hard-core people who are down there? - then this will stay open indefinitely.
RATH: President-elect Trump has said he intends to start loading up Guantanamo with new war detainees - bad dudes, in his words. Secretary Hagel says Trump will have plenty of opportunity to do just that.
HAGEL: The reality is that we're at war. I mean, America is still at war after 15 years. So as long as that's the reality, we're going to be dealing with Guantanamo and what you do with those that you capture and you pick up and you have responsibility for.
RATH: There are still a handful of detainees who have been cleared for release in Guantanamo, and it's possible the transfers could continue up until the moment Mr. Trump, who has called for the transfers to stop, takes office.
Arun Rath, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.