WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is planning to transfer two Guantanamo Bay detainees to Algeria, the first movement of terrorist suspects from the prison since the president announced a renewed push to close the contentious military-run facility in Cuba.
The White House said Friday it was starting the transfers as part of President Barack Obama's goal to close the prison, a campaign promise that has eluded him since he took office. The move signaled a new push to reduce the population of 166 detainees at the prison, where dozens are on a hunger strike to draw attention to their indefinite detention.
The White House said the two detainees will not be identified until after the transfer, which can't come until after a 30-day waiting period. Administration officials also wouldn't say what security assurances they had from the Algerian government as part of the arrangement.
An administration official said the detainees were chosen because Algeria is a close U.S. ally that has successfully managed detainees in the past — none of the previous 12 to be released have returned to terrorist activities, unlike some returned to other countries. The official, speaking on a condition of anonymity without authorization to publicly discuss the process, said it has been in the works since several months before Obama announced his intention this spring to push anew for closure.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed off on the transfer based on the recommendation of an interagency team after a monthslong review. As part of the certification process that has been required by Congress for more than two years, Guantanamo detainees can be transferred if the defense secretary certifies that the individual is not at risk to engage in terrorist activities.
That's a high bar that had slowed the transfer process with 166 remaining at Guantanamo, with the last transfer in September 2012.
Seven Algerian detainees remain at Guantanamo, including five who have been cleared for transfer. Attorney Cori Crider of the British human rights group Reprieve was on a previously scheduled phone call with one of them, 34-year-old Nabil Hadjarab, when the White House announced the certification. She said they were both sort of "shocked" about the prospect of movement. Crider said she did not know whether he or her other Algerian client, 43-year-old Ahmed Bel Bacha, were among the two up for transfer.
The hunger strike, in which both her clients have taken part, and pressure from members of Congress have clearly forced the administration to take action, Crider said. "I think this month there has been more attention and more pressure on the administration in some years to make some progress and there is finally a response," she said in a phone interview from London.
As of Friday, the military said 68 prisoners met the criteria to be classified as being on hunger strike, but officials have said most of the men are eating at least occasional meals and none is in immediate danger. Of the 68, 44 have lost enough weight that the military says they meet the criteria to be force-fed if necessary.
In the past, Bel Bacha has said he does not wish to return to Algeria, where he has been convicted in absentia for belonging to a terrorist group and given a 20-year-sentence.
In 2010, six Algerian detainees resisted efforts to be repatriated, saying they'd rather stay at the prison camp than return to their home country. The most prominent case was that of Aziz Abdul Naji, who argued all the way to the Supreme Court that he might face torture in Algeria. The Supreme Court rejected his plea, and he was transferred in 2010, indicted and placed under judicial supervision.
Administration official say they carefully examine standards of treatment in receiving countries as part of the repatriation process and are confident the Algerians being transferred will be treated humanely.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., was quick to criticize the move because of security concerns.
"With 28 percent of former Guantanamo detainees re-engaging or suspected of re-engaging in terrorist activities, I am deeply troubled by the president's plan to release detainees to a country where there is an active al-Qaida affiliate," she said in a statement. "Rather than releasing detainees who could potentially return to the battlefield, the administration should focus on developing a coherent policy for the long-term detention of foreign terrorists — something it has failed to do after four and a half years."
Some Democratic lawmakers, however, applauded the certification and called on the Obama administration to work to transfer out the 84 other detainees who have been cleared. "At a cost of $454 million annually — or $2.7 million per detainee — it is in the national security interests of the United States to transfer these detainees to their home countries rather than keep them at our isolated military base in Cuba," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement.
Despite Obama's effort to shutter the prison, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress have repeatedly resisted. The House voted 247-175 Tuesday to reject an amendment that would have allowed Obama to begin closing the facility.
At his speech in May, Obama announced several steps to move detainees out of Guantanamo, including a lifting on the ban of transfers to Yemen because of security concerns there and the appointment of senior officials at the State and Defense departments responsible for negotiating transfers.
Last month, Washington attorney Clifford Sloan was named to reopen the State Department's Office of Guantanamo Closure, but the Pentagon official has yet to be announced. William Lietzau, deputy secretary of defense for detainee affairs, who has been the top Pentagon adviser on Guantanamo, told Pentagon colleagues Thursday that he's leaving to take a position in the private sector.
Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Miami and Donna Cassata and Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.