WASHINGTON — European nations have begun intensive discussions within and among their governments on whether to resettle detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a significant overture to the incoming Obama administration, according to senior European officials and U.S. diplomats.
The willingness to consider accepting prisoners who cannot be returned to their home countries, because of fears they may be tortured there, represents a major change in attitude on the part of European governments. Repeated requests from the Bush administration that European allies accept some Guantanamo Bay detainees received only refusals.
The Bush administration "produced the problem," said Karsten Voigt, coordinator of German-American cooperation at the German Foreign Ministry. "With Obama, the difference is that he tries to solve it."
At least half a dozen countries are considering resettlement, with only Germany and Portugal acknowledging it publicly thus far.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has instructed officials to look into political, legal and logistical aspects of the matter, a ministry spokesman said Monday.
European officials put out tentative feelers to Barack Obama's team to see whether it was willing to discuss the issue, but the incoming administration has rejected holding even informal talks until after the Jan. 20 inauguration, according to European and U.S. officials aware of the outreach.
"President-elect Obama has repeatedly said that he intends to close Guantanamo, and he will follow through on those commitments as president. There is one president at a time, and we intend to respect that," said Brooke Anderson, chief national security spokeswoman for the Obama transition team.
The Portuguese government pushed what had been private discussions in Europe into the open this month when Foreign Minister Luis Amado brought up the issue in a letter to his counterparts in other countries.
"The time has come for the European Union to step forward," he wrote. "As a matter of principle and coherence, we should send a clear signal of our willingness to help the U.S. government in that regard, namely through the resettlement of detainees."
Amado said Monday that he plans to raise the issue at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in late January.
The Europeans want a clear commitment to close Guantanamo Bay and an acceptance of common legal principles in the fight against terrorism, includ the treatment of suspects, European officials said.
The Europeans also want Obama to agree to transfer a small number of detainees to the United States. One group likely to be settled here is 17 Chinese Uighurs who have been held for years at Guantanamo Bay. The Bush administration has acknowledged that the Uighurs are not enemy combatants, and in October a judge ordered them released into the United States.