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Washington • Up to half the terror suspects held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay could be closer to heading home under a bipartisan deal reached in Congress that gives President Barack Obama a rare victory in his fight to close the prison.
The deal would lift the most rigid restrictions Congress previously imposed on detainee transfers overseas and is part of a broad compromise defense bill awaiting final passage in the Senate this week. The House approved the measure last Thursday.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said the compromise could have a dramatic impact on the 160 detainees still being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"About half of the detainees would be detainees who could be transferred to their third-world countries from which they come," Levin told reporters. "About half of the detainees would remain in Guantanamo because of the prohibition on transferring them to the United States for detention and for trial."
The defense bill marks the first time since Obama came to office promising to close Guantanamo that Congress is moving to ease restrictions instead of strengthen them.
Congressional proponents of keeping Guantanamo open say they felt they had to allow for transfers to other countries to maintain a more important priority a ban on detainees from coming into the United States. The administration also pushed for the ability to transfer detainees to the U.S. for imprisonment, trial or medical emergencies but lost on that front, leaving Obama a thorny predicament of what to do with captives considered too dangerous to release.
Top administration officials, including Obama counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco and State Department envoy Clifford Sloan, pointed out the annual cost of operating Guantanamo has reached more than $2 million per prisoner while other terrorism suspects are kept in U.S. prisons at a small fraction of the price. Half of the detainees at Guantanamo were approved for transfer nearly four years ago.