WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced Friday that it was reviving the repatriation of low-level detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which had dried up after Congress imposed strict limits on transfers.
The announcement comes as William Lietzau, the top Pentagon official dealing with detainees, is stepping down to take a private sector job. Officials said the timing was a coincidence.
The White House said it had informed Congress that it intended to return two detainees to Algeria under the terms of a statute that requires Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to certify that various security conditions have been met.
"We are taking this step in consultation with the Congress, and in a responsible manner that protects our national security," the administration said in a statement. "We continue to call on Congress to join us in supporting these efforts by lifting the current restrictions that significantly limit our ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo, even those who have been approved for transfer."
The statement did not identify the two detainees. There are as many as five Algerians at the prison who were recommended for transfer by a task force in early 2010. In all, 86 of the 166 detainees at the prison have been recommended for transfer if security conditions can be met. President Barack Obama has sought to revitalize his administration's effort to close the Guantanamo prison amid a hunger strike.
Republicans have sought to portray Obama's efforts to wind down operations at the detention center as soft on terrorism, and Friday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, accused Obama of taking the risk of releasing detainees who might engage in terrorism, as some former released detainees have done, "just to satisfy a political promise."
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democrat who chairs the intelligence committee, praised Obama's move, noting the two had been "cleared for transfer years ago" and arguing that at an annual cost of $2.7 million to house each detainee, "it is in the national security interests of the United States to transfer these detainees to their home countries."