MIAMI (AP) — President Obama has edged closer to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison by swapping five Taliban members for a captured American soldier, but the criticism he faced yesterday for the deal underscores the challenges he faces in emptying out the cells at the U.S. base in Cuba.
Several members of Congress condemned the exchange, saying among other things that it could put troops in danger if the freed Taliban resume hostilities against the United States.
That fear prompted Congress to impose restrictions on the transfer of prisoners out of Guantanamo that have thwarted Obama’s pledge to close the detention center within the first year of taking office.
Congress eased the restrictions on transfers somewhat last year and a Senate committee has approved lifting a ban on sending prisoners to the U.S. But significant challenges remain, including any blowback over the exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and time is running short.
“It’s possible that President Obama could make a big move in his last two years, presumably after the midterm elections,” said John Bellinger, a former legal adviser to the State Department and National Security Council. “But it’s equally possible he will decide he can’t close it or Congress will make it impossible to close and it will get kicked down the road to his successor.”
The remaining 149 prisoners fall into several, somewhat fluid categories. Nearly 80 of them have been approved for transfer to their homelands or a third country. Those moves have gradually resumed after coming to a halt due to security requirements imposed by Congress that were altered last year.
Some who have criticized the government for moving too slowly on transfers say the exchange for Bergdahl, which took place without a required 30-day notice to Congress, shows the Obama administration can act more forcefully to close Guantanamo.