Congress Just Quietly Took a Big Step Toward Closing Guantanamo

In a surprise bipartisan move Thursday, the Republican-led House passed a plan that could make it easier to transfer most of the remaining 160 U.S. terror detainees from their prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to other locations overseas.

The plan, part of a defense bill that the Senate is expected to approve shortly, could send as many as half the detainees back to their countries of origin, according to the AP. The other half would remain in Gitmo to await trial by U.S. authorities, since Congress kept in place its restriction against trying any of the detainees on the American mainland.

For years, Congress has flouted President Obama's stated intentions of closing the facility—which has been connected with torture, indefinite incarceration without trial, and the worst excesses of the "war on terror"—by making it harder to move detainees off the island. In fact, half the current detainees were cleared for release by the administration four years ago, but remain because of Congress' soon-to-be-defunct restrictions.

Those included:

  • A ban on sending detainees to any foreign country "facing a threat that is likely to substantially affect its ability to exercise control over the individual." That ruled out much of the Middle East and South Asia.
  • A ban on sending any of the prisoners "to countries where detainees who have been released previously have re-engaged in terrorism," according to the AP. That ruled out allies like Kuwait, which has an empty detention center waiting to be filled by Gitmo castoffs.
  • A ban on repatriating any of the group "to countries that the United States has declared a state sponsor of terrorism." The Syrian and Sudanese detainees have long been screwed by that order.

Goodbye to all that—although any changes in U.S. policy are likely to appear gradual. The transfers aren't expected to happen immediately, although Sudan told the AP its two detainees were already bound for home on earlier agreements.

And of course, there will still be 80 or so prisoners awaiting some kind of resolution at Gitmo, since there's apparently broad bipartisan agreement that if they get American trials on American soil, the terrorists will have won.

[Photo credit: AP]