WASHINGTON -- The Senate and House Armed Services committees have reached a deal that would, for the first time, loosen restrictions that impede the Pentagon's ability to transfer Guantanamo detainees to foreign countries, making it slightly easier for the Obama administration to pursue the president's longstanding goal of closing the detention facilities.
The compromise version of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 would expand the executive branch's ability to transfer Guantanamo prisoners to other countries, while maintaining the ban on bringing them to the United States. The proposed NDAA would allow detainees to be sent to Yemen, but would require the administration to report on the Yemen government's ability to detain, rehabilitate or prosecute them.
Under the deal, the military wouldn't receive any money to build new Guantanamo detention facilities or upgrade the old ones. It would also ban the use of Defense Department funds for constructing or modifying any military facilities in the U.S. to house Guantanamo detainees through all of 2014.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a press conference that the compromise "gives flexibility to the president to transfer detainees from Guantanamo to third countries."
For the plan to pass before the end of the year, the House would have to vote yes on the bill this week and the Senate would have to take it up next week. Congress has passed a defense authorization bill for the last 52 years.
More than 80 detainees who have been cleared for transfer -- about half of Guantanamo's population -- are still being held in indefinite detention. The Obama administration's effort to close the facilities had stalled, but the president renewed his commitment to closure earlier this year.
Even if the legislation passes and those 80-plus men are sent away, the administration will face the difficult question of what to do with the remaining detainees, many of whom it believes cannot be prosecuted in either federal or military court yet are too dangerous to transfer to another country. While advocating for closure of a facility that has come to symbolize indefinite detention, the administration still wants to keep indefinite detention in place. And as the slow military commissions process chugs along, the administration will eventually have to figure out what to do with those detainees who are convicted.
Yet for advocates of Guantanamo's closure, the news that Congress may potentially agree on legislation scaling back the restrictions on transfers represents a major development in an effort that has seen few victories.
"It's a very good development that the Defense Department can step up its efforts to resettle and repatriate the vast majority of detainees who have never been charged with a crime," Chris Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union told The Huffington Post. "It's certainly a big step in the right direction, but certainly more needs to be done."
“The proposed defense bill is the first step toward untangling the knot that is Guantanamo,” Dixon Osburn of Human Rights First said in a statement. "It provides a path forward for foreign transfers that balances our security interests and our legal obligations."
"Today, Congress took one step forward and one step back on Guantanamo," said Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "The Senate's provision that clarifies transfers to other countries is an important and welcome improvement that President Obama must leverage as soon as possible. However, the House's restriction on transfers to the US, even for trial or medical treatment, is a terrible blow for human rights. President Obama must find a solution to end the Guantanamo crisis."