WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced Friday its intention to repatriate two prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility to Algeria, the first such transfers in nearly a year.
The announcement came as William Lietzau, the top Pentagon official dealing with detainees, said he was stepping down to take a private-sector job. Officials said the timing was a coincidence.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the Defense Department notified Congress of the transfers, which will be done “in a responsible manner that protects our national security.” Under U.S. law, Congress must receive a 30-day notification before any transfer.
The administration does not need congressional approval for detainee transfers when the defense secretary certifies that those being released do not constitute a threat to national security. Several other detainees at the facility in Cuba have been repatriated to Algeria in past years.
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Officials did not identify the detainees slated for transfer, but Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the Algerian government wants the two back and is “willing and able as a political and security matter to accept them.”
In all, 86 of the 166 detainees remaining at the prison have been recommended for transfer if security conditions can be met. President Obama has recently sought to revitalize his administration’s effort to close the Guantánamo prison amid a widespread hunger strike.
Obama had pledged to close Guantánamo within a year of taking office and criticized the prison as overly expensive and a symbol used in terrorists’ propaganda. But his efforts have been opposed in Congress, which in January 2011 imposed requirements that countries be capable of taking steps to control any former detainees and prevent them from terrorist activities.
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 that 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.”
Lietzau, who will leave his position next month, was traveling to Guantánamo on Friday and could not be reached for comment. In an email he sent to his staff at the Pentagon on Thursday, he said he had accepted a job as vice president and deputy general counsel for PAE, a government services company.
Lietzau has played a major role in shaping detention policies across two administrations. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he was a uniformed lawyer for the Marine Corps, he served as an adviser in the creation of the first version of President George W. Bush’s system of military-commissions trials.
In the Obama administration, he has been the primary official shaping policies for “law of war” detention at the prison at Guantánamo Bay and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
In that role, he has frequently defended prisoner-of-war-style indefinite detention without trial, saying it is a moral, lawful and humane part of warfare. His leading role within the administration in defending its continued use in the open-ended war against al-Qaida has drawn fire from many of the same critics angry at Obama for failing to close the prison at Guantánamo.