The Cable

Obama Makes Biggest Move Yet to Empty Guantanamo

The Pentagon transferred 15 detainees to the UAE in the single-largest move under the Obama administration. Little noticed: Six were cleared just this year.


Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump repeated his vows on Monday to maintain the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and fill it with new detainees — including, potentially, some U.S. citizens.

President Barack Obama answered just a few hours later with the announcement that the Pentagon had transferred 15 Guantanamo detainees to the United Arab Emirates, the largest such move during his tenure.

Sixty-one detainees remain at Guantanamo, with 20 of them cleared for transfer.

Administration officials have stated their goal is to move all those approved for transfer, and add a few more to the “move” column, by the end of the summer, putting them on pace to get the detainee population below 40 by November.

In the announcement, the Pentagon took the rare step of noting when the detainees were approved for transfer and by whom. Typically, such announcements only state the number and names of those being moved, and their destination.

The details serve as a defiant reminder that the Obama administration is working to shrink Guantanamo’s population as much as possible before Obama leaves office despite congressional efforts to slow or block the moves.

Current legal obstacles prevent Obama from moving any detainees to U.S. soil and are intended to make transfers abroad more difficult, but do not stop them altogether, nor do they prohibit an inter-agency group from continuing to review cases and send others to join them.

An interagency task force from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, reviewed the cases of the 15 detainees as part of an executive order Obama issued the day after he took office in 2009, and cleared six.

But nine more were cleared more recently, by “periodic review boards” of the same inter-agency group, which determined, “continued law of war detention … does not remain necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States,” per the release. The PRBs cleared six detainees this year alone, as recently as May 31.

Quietly, the administration has dramatically stepped up the pace of the PRBs in 2016, reviewing cases at a steady clip of twice a week for several months — meaning the number of detainees at Guantanamo who have not been cleared for transfer could shrink to some two-dozen or so in Obama’s last months. 

Photo credit: THOMAS WATKINS / Staff

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